NYCLU Sues Herkimer Co. School District for Failing to Protect Gay Youth from Harassment

August 19, 2009 —  The New York Civil Liberties Union today filed a federal lawsuit against the Mohawk Central School District in Herkimer County for failing to protect a gay student who does not conform to masculine stereotypes from vicious and relentless harassment, physical abuse and threats of violence.

Over the past two school years, J.L., a 14-year-old student at Gregory B. Jarvis Junior/Senior High School, endured escalating harassment for his sexual orientation and for not conforming to masculine stereotypes. He suffered near-constant verbal assault, his personal property has been defaced and broken, and he was regularly pushed and had things thrown at him. This past year, a student knocked J.L. down the stairs and sprained his ankle and a student brought a knife to school and threatened to kill him.

The harassment harmed J.L.’s academic performance and mental health and though the district was repeatedly made aware of the abuse, district officials – including the superintendent and school principal – failed to formerly investigate the harassment, discipline students, or even inform J.L. and his parents of their rights to file complaints under the school’s grievance procedures.

“J.L., like all students, has a right to be safe at school,” NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman said. “No child should live in fear because of their sexual orientation, or because they look or act differently than others. That the principal and other school officials would turn their backs on this vulnerable young man is unconscionable. What’s more, it’s illegal.”

The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York. It maintains that the school district violated J.L.’s rights under the 14th Amendment; Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972, and state human rights and civil rights laws. It names following defendants: Mohawk Central School District; Joyce Caputo, superintendent of schools; Edward Rinaldo, the school’s principal; and Cynthia Stocker, the district’s equal opportunity compliance officer.

“People always make fun of what they don’t understand, but the school has a responsibility to protect people,” said J.L., a singer and songwriter who loves the pop singer Pink and dreams of going on American Idol. “I shouldn’t have to fear for my safety at school. No one should.”

Beginning in the seventh grade and continuing through J.L.’s eighth grade year, numerous students relentlessly harassed J.L. because he is gay, dyes his hair, wears eye makeup and speaks in a high-pitched voice. He endured a range of slurs, such as faggot, queer and homo, on a daily basis, occasionally with teachers present. Indeed at least one teacher contributed to this climate of harassment by telling J.L. he should be ashamed of himself for being gay.

Aside from the continuous verbal assault, J.L. has also experienced physical intimidation and violence at school. Students have thrown food at him in the cafeteria; pushed him down the stairs; knocked books from his hands; destroyed or defaced his belongings, including his clothing, cell phone and iPod; and threatened to beat, stab and kill him. When the student who brought a knife to school threatened to kill him, he said he would string J.L.’s “ass up from the flagpole.”

During last school year, J.L.’s father called Principal Rinaldo frequently regarding these incidents and threats. Additionally, J.L.’s mother and stepmother spoke to Rinaldo several times over the phone and in person. Each time, Rinaldo promised to look into the harassment allegations, but he never reported to J.L.’s parents on any steps taken to investigate incidents, the outcome of any such investigations, and any subsequent corrective or disciplinary actions.

“We didn’t want to file this lawsuit, but we had no other choice to keep our son safe,” said Robert Sullivan, J.L.’s father. “But this lawsuit goes beyond my child. We’re doing this for all of the kids out there who need help.”

“School district officials have been deliberately indifferent to J.L.’s harassment,” said NYCLU staff attorney Corey Stoughton, lead counsel on the case. “By behaving as though they were powerless to stop the threats and abuse, they not only discriminated against our client, but also violated their own policies and practices for preventing harassment and discrimination.”

School officials violated the district’s anti-harassment policy in several ways. For example, the policy requires the school’s equal opportunity compliance officer to interview all relevant persons involved in a harassment complaint. Yet, Stocker, the compliance officer, interviewed neither J.L. nor his father about the incidents they reported, nor did she file reports on each incident as required by the policy. Likewise neither Stocker nor Rinaldo ever reported the harassment complaints to the proper authorities, in violation of the policy.

At a June 9, 2009 meeting, Rinaldo told Sullivan that he could not guarantee J.L.’s safety at school and stated that the harassment would likely continue in the upcoming school year. Rinaldo and Sullivan agreed that for J.L.’s safety, the young man would not attend school for the remainder of the year except to take his final exams.

The plaintiff is seeking changes to school policies and practices to address the harassment J.L. faces, as well as compensatory and punitive damages.

In addition to Stoughton, attorneys on the case are Christopher Dunn, Galen Sherwin, Ami Sanghvi, Matthew Faiella and Naomi R. Shatz.