The New York Civil Liberties Union today announced the settlement of a federal lawsuit against the Buffalo City School District for the open and systematic discrimination of LGBTQ students at McKinley High School.
The school district has agreed to all of the NYCLU’s demands, including maintaining a Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA), an after-school club where students provide social, emotional and educational support for one another. For years the school had refused to allow a GSA, but days after the NYCLU filed the suit in May of this year the school district instructed McKinley to form one.
“We are pleased that LGBTQ students at McKinley High School will start school this week with new rules in place that should ensure fairness and equality, and we will be watching to make sure that framework is followed,” said NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman. “Districts across New York have an obligation to see that schools are open, inclusive places for all students to learn.”
In addition to maintaining a GSA, the settlement requires LGBTQ anti-discrimination trainings for staff and students; two years of reporting on LGBT discrimination and harassment complaints to the NYCLU; and the prominent display of the district’s anti-discrimination policy around McKinley, including instructions on how to submit a discrimination or harassment complaint directly to the district.
“I’m really looking forward to a new, more stable and supportive school environment where we can feel comfortable,” said Byshop Elliott, the plaintiff in the case and a senior at McKinley. “This just shows that, if you set your mind to it, all things are possible.”
The NYCLU lawsuit documented pervasive discrimination at McKinley. Announcements over the loudspeaker warned students that they were not allowed to bring a same-sex date to prom. At school dances the principal separated same-sex couples and warned them to stay apart or face punishment. The pattern of overt discrimination continued for years. Amidst this climate of public bigotry, dozens of students banded together in an attempt to create a GSA.
During the 2014-2015 school year, students interested in forming a GSA along with a faculty sponsor submitted an application to the school principal, but she never responded in writing. Only after the faculty sponsor had posted signs around the school advertising an initial meeting for students interested in joining the GSA was the group told its application had been denied.
“This settlement should serve as a warning to other districts throughout the state that curtailing LGBTQ students’ rights will not be tolerated,” said NYCLU Staff Attorney Bobby Hodgson, lead counsel in the case. “While we are glad that all of our demands are met under this settlement, we recognize that we never should have had to file this case in the first place.”
In the spring of 2016, plaintiff Byshop Elliott collected close to thirty students’ signatures supporting the formation of a GSA and he also secured a faculty sponsor. However, he was told it was too late in the school year to form a club and that it would be denied, even as another application to form a different student club at the same time was approved. At the beginning of the 2016-2017 school year, Byshop again organized an application for the GSA and secured a faculty sponsor, but again his attempts were ignored.
“We are happy that LGBTQ students at McKinley are finally able to participate in a GSA and to know that the discrimination they faced was unacceptable and illegal,” said John Curr III, NYCLU Western Regional Office Director. “Western New York is a better place because of Byshop and his fellow students who didn’t take no for an answer.”