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J.L. v. Mohawk Central School District

This lawsuit was brought against the Mohawk Central School District in Herkimer County for failing to protect a gay student who does not conform to masculine stereotypes from harassment, physical abuse and threats of violence. The plaintiff, J.L., a 14-year-old student at Gregory B. Jarvis Junior/Senior High School, endured escalating harassment during the seventh and eighth grades. He suffered near-constant verbal assault, his personal property was defaced and broken, and he was regularly pushed and had things thrown at him. During the school year that ended in 2009, a student knocked J.L. down the stairs and sprained his ankle and another 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.

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

In a settlement approved by the NYCLU, 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. 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.

N.D.N.Y., Index No. 09-CV-943 (direct).

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