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Jamie Nabozny Wins Landmark Decision for Gay Students' Rights

by Joe Ridky, NCSP

On November 20, 1996, Jamie Nabozny, the student who sued his former Ashland, Wisconsin school district, won a $900,000 out-of-court settlement in Eau Claire, WI. This settlement was agreed in a lawsuit claiming school officials violated a gay student’s rights by not protecting him from years of harassment by other students. The agreement came a day after a federal court jury found that three school administrators violated his rights, although it found the district as a whole was not guilty of discrimination. The same jury had been scheduled to begin considering damages before the settlement was announced by Peg Byron, public education director for the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund and Timothy Yanacheck, an attorney who defended the district on behalf of Wausau Insurance. Jamie was supported in his efforts by NASP when this association signed on to an Amici Curiae Brief at the request of Lambda Legal Defense Fund as a Friend-of-the-Court (see November, 1996 Communique article by Trish Boland).

Jamie’s harassment started in the seventh grade and lasted four years, despite repeated complaints from him and his parents. The harassment included physical assaults like mock rapes, being kicked and continual verbal abuse. After he quit school in the 11th grade, he moved to Minneapolis. There he earned an equivalency degree, got to know the homosexual community in the Twin Cities and worked for a time with District 200, a community center for lesbian and gay teens. Jamie’s mother, Carol Nabozny, said that of her three sons, she always felt Jamie would make a difference in the world, and now he has for other young people who might find themselves in similar circumstances. Michael Kaplan, director of District 200, said that characteristic showed through when Jamie worked at the center. "He’d see something that needed to be done and he’d do it. He was very self-motivating," Kaplan said.

"I was just happy to get out alive," Jamie said of leaving school. He said that it took him several years to work up the courage to file his suit, but he did so after hearing from friends in Ashland that harassment of others continued and that students -- including Native Americans -- were being treated differently. "I feel like I have justice and that this means justice for all the others kids out there who aren’t sure if they should stay in school or stay alive. School is a place for learning. All kids need to be treated alike," Jamie said in a statement. Homosexuals have paid a high price in abuse, said Lambda attorney Patricia Logue. "Now the tables have turned, and it is prejudice that has proved so costly," she said. The Lambda group took up Jamie’s case after his original attorney said she could not afford to take the case to appeal after an initial setback. Lambda legal experts say the case is the first to extend to homosexuals the same right against sexual harassment as others have. They also say the case warns school authorities that they must make sure those rights are enforced.

At the time of original publication, Joe Ridky, Ph. D., NCSP, was Co-Chair of the NASP Committee on Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Issues and a Psychological Services Specialist for the Montgomery County (MD) Public Schools.

From Communique, 1997, vol.25 (5)