March 29, 2010 — In a settlement approved today by a federal judge, the New York Civil Liberties Union, the U.S. Department of Justice and a Herkimer County school district agreed on a series of reforms to protect students from bullying and harassment based on sexual orientation and gender expression.
The NYCLU sued the Mohawk Central School District in August on behalf of a student who alleged that he was repeatedly harassed, threatened and physically assaulted at school for being gay and not conforming to gender stereotypes. The civil rights lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York, maintained that district officials were aware of the bullying and did nothing to stop it. The School District denied the allegations in the complaint.
“We applaud the school district for making this commitment to protect all students from bullying and harassment,” said NYCLU Senior Staff Attorney Corey Stoughton, lead counsel on the case. “We look forward to working with district officials and the Department of Justice on implementing these important reforms, and hope that they will inspire other school systems to confront bullying of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and gender non-conforming students.”
The student, J.L., was entering the ninth grade at Gregory B. Jarvis Junior/Senior High School when the lawsuit was filed earlier this school year. He has since transferred to a high school in another district.
The lawsuit drew the attention of the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), which filed a motion to intervene in the case on J.L.’s behalf. That motion was pending when settlement negotiations commenced. Under the settlement, the DOJ has agreed not to pursue the matter further in court.
As part of the settlement, the school district agreed to reforms that should protect all students in Mohawk schools:
- The school district has enlisted the support of the Anti-Defamation League and will begin training staff on appropriate ways to address issues of harassment;
- It will review its policies and procedures governing harassment based on sex, gender identity, gender expression and sexual orientation;
- And it will report to the New York Civil Liberties Union, who represented the student in the lawsuit, as well as the Department of Justice on these efforts as well as its ongoing response to complaints of discrimination and harassment.
“This settlement affirms that school districts nationwide have the responsibility to protect children from bullying and harassment based on sexual orientation and gender non-conformity,” said NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman. “No child should live in fear of going to school.”
In addition to Stoughton, NYCLU attorneys on the case are Matthew Faiella and Naomi R. Shatz.
The student and the school district have released the following joint-statement:
The Mohawk Central School District and a former student of the school district today jointly announced the settlement of a federal civil rights lawsuit filed last August.
The 15-year-old student alleged in the lawsuit that the school district was deliberately indifferent to harassment based on sex and sexual orientation and failed to take steps to protect him from it.
The Justice Department had sought to intervene in the case on behalf of the student. The school district has denied the allegations and today's settlement does not constitute an admission of liability or wrongdoing by the school district or any of its employees.
As part of the settlement, the school district agreed to undertake several measures designed to prevent and address harassment based on sex, gender identity, gender expression and sexual orientation. The school district also agreed to keep the New York Civil Liberties Union, who represented the student in the lawsuit, and the Justice Department informed of these efforts as well as its ongoing response to complaints of discrimination and harassment. The student has agreed to dismiss the lawsuit against the school district and its employees, and the Justice Department agreed to withdraw its motion to intervene.
With these changes, the school district and the NYCLU look forward to working together, along with the Justice Department, and hope that the Mohawk Central School District can serve as a model for other school districts confronting issues of bullying and intolerance of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and gender non-conforming students.