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Gay Student Wins Sexual Harassment Case With NASP Support

by Patricia A. Boland, NCSP

Jamie Nabozny sued his former Wisconsin school district and several school officials for not protecting him from years of anti-gay harassment and assaults. In his suit, Jamie, now age 20, sought the award of his high school diploma, attendance at the high school graduation ceremony and $50,000 dollars in damages. A district court judge in Wisconsin dismissed the suit. Jamie, represented by the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, appealed his case to the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals. At the request of Lambda, the NASP leadership agreed to sign onto the Amici Curiae Brief along with the National Association of Social Workers and other organizations.

Appeals Court Decision

In its July 31 decision, the Court of Appeals panel concluded that the Ashland Public School System, the principals of the middle and high schools, and the high school’s assistant principal "violated Nabozny’s Fourteenth Amendment right to equal protection by discriminating against him based on his gender or sexual orientation." The panel rejected, due to a lack of sufficient evidence, the argument that school officials violated Jamie’s due process rights by failing to ensure the safety of his environment. As a result of the Appeals Court decision, Jamie won the right to a trial to address his equal protection claim that he was discriminated against due to his gender and sexual orientation. This trial is scheduled for November, 1996, in the same Wisconsin district court that originally dismissed his suit. The Lambda Legal Defense Fund will continue to represent Jamie.

The Court of Appeals’ legal decision contains a detailed history of the abuse and harassment Jamie suffered at the hands of his fellow students and school staff. In elementary school, Jamie was described as a good student who enjoyed a positive educational experience. In the seventh grade, Jamie realized he was gay and decided not to "closet" his sexuality. Considerable harassment and abuse from other students ensued throughout Jamie’s middle and high school years, including name calling, striking and spitting on him. On one occasion two boys held Jamie down and performed a mock rape on him while twenty other students looked on and laughed. In an assault in a bathroom, Jamie was knocked down and urinated on by several boys. In the most serious physical assault, Jamie was kicked in the stomach for five to ten minutes by a boy while a group of students looked on in laughter. Jamie later collapsed from internal bleeding. Jamie was hospitalized several times for suicide attempts during his secondary school career. He withdrew to attend a Catholic school and also to live elsewhere with relatives. Jamie also ran away once but his parents convinced him to return with the unfulfilled promise that he would not have to attend Ashland High. Jamie and his parents repeatedly met with school officials after incidents of abuse, but received no satisfaction or an end to the abuse. Instead, Jamie was told that he deserved and should expect such behavior from his fellow students if he was going to be so openly gay. Finally, in the eleventh grade, Jamie left school and moved to Minneapolis where he was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He completed his GED there.

Supporting Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Youth

Jamie’s case, while the first to be brought to the federal appeals court level, is unfortunately not an isolated one. As the well-researched and written Amici Curiae Brief documents, there exist "devastating effectsof anti-gay violence, especially upon gay and lesbian adolescents." The four main arguments presented in the brief are:

1. Anti-gay harassment and violence are prevalent in our schools.

2. Gay and lesbian adolescents are particularly vulnerable to harassment and violence.

3. A safe school environment can alleviate the developmental problems gay and lesbian youth face.

4. A safe environment can only be created by consistent and fair enforcement of school policies against harassment.

NASP’s involvement in Jamie’s legal defense is supported by our Resolution on Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Youths in the Schools adopted on January 16, 1993. Another well-researched document, part of the Resolution states that NASP "shall take a leadership role in promoting societal and familial attitudes and behaviors that affirm the dignity and rights, within educational environments, of all lesbian, gay,and bisexual youths" and that NASP supports "providing a safe and secure educational atmosphere in which all youths, including lesbian, gay, and bisexual youths, may obtain an education free from discrimination, harassment, violence, and abuse, and which promotes an understanding and acceptance of self."

The case of Jamie Nabozny and NASP’s involvement brings to the forefront a new but ever so needed challenge to practicing school psychologists. We have championed understanding and acceptance of students with physical, cognitive, learning or emotional disabilities. We have provided leadership in our school communities to address prejudice and intolerance of those from different ethnic or racial backgrounds.So should we now lead the way in recognizing and supporting our gay, lesbian and bisexual youth. Some of these sexual minority youth are "out," while some remain "closeted," but these students exist in every school, in every community. Due to the intolerance of our society and often of their families and peer groups, sexual minority youth are among our most at-risk population in our secondary schools. Is there a Jamie Nabozny waiting in your school for you to step forward?

At the time of original publication, Patricia Boland, Ed.S., NCSP, was a school psychologist for the Chesterfield County Public Schools in Chesterfield,VA, a volunteer with the Richmond Organization for Sexual Minority Youth, and a member of NASP's Committee on Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Issues.

From Communique, 1996,vol.25(3)