This post comes courtesy of Hayley Gornberg, Deputy Legal Director at Lambda Legal. Lambda Legal is currently filing suit on behalf of Maverick Couch, a student from Waynesville High School in Waynesville, Ohio who, after wearing a t-shirt to school that read “Jesus is not a homophobe,” was ordered by his principal to turn the T-shirt inside out and told that if he wore it again he would be suspended from school. You can show your support for Maverick, Lambda Legal, and the work being done on behalf of LGBTQ students around the country by signing the pledge.
16 years ago, we successfully represented Jamie Nabozny after he endured years of bullying and harassment at school. The ruling from the court in his case made clear for the first time that the Constitution protects gay students from harassment and abuse just as much as it protects other kids. We at Lambda Legal are very proud of that; the case spoke volumes then, and still does.
But there’s too long a line of school cases following Jamie’s lead. Too many schools around the country still allow the abuse of LGBT students to such a degree that Lambda Legal and our sister organizations can predict the fact patterns. There are often three common elements to the lawsuits we bring on behalf of students who experience anti-LGBT bullying, and we can do something to change all of them.
1. The bullying cases classically include combinations of verbal slurs and physical acts. For example, boys called “sissy” and girls taunted for being “butch.” We add this analysis about stereotypes because we don’t have federal laws that are crystal clear about protecting young people against abuse based upon sexual orientation. But the problem with not having specific enough laws is not just about some clearer legal claims in court. What’s really important is that better laws and policies and training would give even more specific guidance to schools — to help keep these cases from ever happening in the first place.
Nearly every case narrative we have includes something along the lines of this phrase: “And then it escalated to physical assaults.” I have been thinking about that repeating narrative a lot lately. About how the failure to intervene at the level of verbal taunts gives the green light to escalation. Shoving into lockers. Tripping, grabbing, kicking, punching.
2. As was the case in Jamie’s experience, school officials said to the target of antigay bullying: “You’re bringing this on yourself.” “Don’t act so gay.” “Don’t flaunt it.” Instead, school officials need to intervene at all levels, and they need to do so effectively. If a student doesn’t know or is too scared to say who abused her or him, many officials refuse to respond in any way. There’s no publication or republication of a nonharassment policy. No announcements. No school assembly. Instead, the student is blamed for being the target. Our lawsuit fact pattern builds.
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