Softball coaches accused of outing E. Texas teen

Trial set for January after federal judge rules privacy claim can move forward in court

Wyatt.Skye

Skye Wyatt

JOHN WRIGHT  |  Senior Political Writer
wright@dallasvoice.com

TYLER — Before Skye Wyatt’s softball coaches outed her as a lesbian to her mother in 2009, she was a straight-A student who loved going to school, Wyatt alleges in court documents.

Then a 16-year-old sophomore at Kilgore High School in East Texas, Wyatt wanted to continue playing softball and maybe even become a coach.

But after coaches Rhonda Fletcher and Cassandra Newell locked Wyatt in a locker room on March 3, 2009 — where they allegedly threatened and interrogated her, before kicking her off the team and outing her to her mom — Wyatt said she became depressed and anxious.

“I had trouble sleeping,” Wyatt wrote in a sworn statement dated Oct. 3, 2011. “I even cut myself and contemplated suicide. My grades went down, and I started skipping school.

“As a result of Ms. Fletcher and Ms. Newell telling my mom I was gay, she and I didn’t speak for months,” Wyatt wrote. “Our relationship was totally destroyed for almost two years. It was incredibly difficult for me to go through all of the pain of being outed and kicked off the softball team without feeling close to my mom.”

In December 2010, Wyatt and her mother, Barbara, filed a federal lawsuit against Fletcher, Newell and the Kilgore Independent School District, accusing them of violating her privacy.

Last month, U.S. Magistrate Judge John Love, of the Eastern District of Texas, denied the defendants’ motion for summary judgment in the case, which is now set for trial in January.

Wayne Krause, an attorney with the Austin-based Texas Civil Rights Project, which is representing Barbara and Skye Wyatt, called Love’s decision to deny summary judgment “a huge victory.”

Krause said it marks the first time a court in the 5th U.S. Circuit — which covers Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas — has identified a constitutional right to privacy for sexual orientation information.

“It’s one thing to say that conduct by LGBT people can’t be criminalized under the Constitution,” Krause said, referring to the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Lawrence v. Texas, which overturned the state’s sodomy ban. “It’s another to say there’s an explicit constitutional right to have information about sexual orientation be kept confidential.”

Attorney Robert S. Davis of Tyler, who’s representing the defendants, downplayed the significance of Love’s 23-page decision.

“I think the court found that there were some contested fact issues, and that’s fairly common, so we’re ready to go to trial on it and think we’ll get a good result,” Davis said.

In court documents, the defendants allege that Skye Wyatt had been openly gay for several years and never attempted to keep her sexuality secret.

They also argue that the coaches had a legitimate interest in revealing Wyatt’s sexual orientation to her mother, because they were concerned about her safety. The coaches said they believed Wyatt was in a potentially illegal relationship with an 18-year-old named Hillary Nutt.

But the plaintiffs responded that if the coaches thought Wyatt was in an illegal relationship, they should have reported it to law enforcement, not her mother. The defendants also note that the school district doesn’t routinely investigate heterosexual relationships between 16- and 18-year-olds.

Instead, the coaches were merely retaliating against Wyatt and trying to intimidate her, the plaintiffs allege. The coaches believed Wyatt had started a rumor that Nutt was Newell’s ex-girlfriend and that the coach herself was gay.

According to the original lawsuit, Fletcher and Newell called an unscheduled team meeting on March 3, 2009. The coaches dismissed the rest of the team before leading Wyatt, identified as “S.W.” in court documents, into a locker room and locking the door behind them.

“Fletcher asked S.W. if she was gay, and accused her of having a sexual relationship with another girl. She also claimed that S.W. was spreading gossip about this other girl being ‘Coach Newell’s girlfriend,’” the suit states. “The girl to whom Fletcher was referring had interacted with Newell at a number of school events. At the time of Fletcher and Newell’s confrontation, S.W. was dating that girl.”

When Wyatt denied the allegations, the coaches reacted angrily, threatening to sue her for slander and making menacing gestures. “S.W. was very afraid, and feared they might strike her,” the complaint states.

After Fletcher and Newell finally allowed Wyatt  to leave the locker room, they promptly phoned Barbara Wyatt and asked her to meet them at the field.

When Barbara Wyatt arrived, the coaches told her that her daughter was a lesbian and gave her the phone number of the girlfriend.

The coaches kicked Skye Wyatt off the softball team, but lied to other players by saying she had quit, according to the lawsuit. Their actions resulted in “severe mental and emotional anguish, resulted in social isolation, and robbed her of the freedom to deal with her sexuality privately, at her own pace and on her own terms.”

Barbara Wyatt eventually filed a complaint with the school district’s superintendent, who dismissed it saying that the coaches were “legally obligated to share this information with the parent.”

“In other words, KISD’s policy mandates that teachers disclose students’ sexual orientation to their parents,” the suit alleges.

“Discrimination, bullying and the infliction of emotional trauma against students who are gay or believed to be gay is a nationally recognized problem,” the complaint states. “Defendants’ actions and policies exacerbate this problem and set a very harmful example to students, teachers, and parents in Kilgore ISD.”

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 16, 2011.

—  Kevin Thomas

WATCH: Atheist group files federal lawsuit seeking to stop Gov. Rick Perry’s day of prayer

Gov. Rick Perry

Speaking of violations of the separation between church and state, Houston’s Fox 26 reports that the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation has filed a federal lawsuit seeking to put the kabosh on Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s day of prayer at Reliant Stadium in Houston on Aug. 6. The Freedom From Religion Foundation, which claims to be “the nation’s largest explicitly atheist/agnostic membership group,” previously has argued that the National Day of Prayer is unconstitutional. “The answers for America’s problems won’t be found on our knees or in heaven, but by using our brains, our reason and in compassionate action,” says the Foundation’s Dan Barker, a former evangelical minister. “Gov. Perry’s distasteful use of his civil office to plan and dictate a religious course of action to ‘all citizens’ is deeply offensive to many citizens, as well as to our secular form of government.”

Read the full lawsuit here. The group’s press release, along with Fox 26′s report, is after the jump.

—  John Wright

Asher Brown’s parents file federal lawsuit; CPS report raises questions about home environment

David and Amy Truong addressed members of the LGBT community who came from around Texas to lobby for anti-bullying laws on March 7. (David Taffet/Dallas Voice)

The parents of Asher Brown, a gay 13-year-old from the Houston area who took his own life last fall after being bullied by classmates, are suing Hamilton Middle School and the Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District for allegedly failing to respond to their complaints. Brown’s parents, Amy and David Truong, announced the federal lawsuit on the steps of the Texas Capitol on Tuesday. From KHOU.com:

“If the bullies were held accountable for their actions, we wouldn’t be standing here right now,” said David Truong, Brown’s stepfather.

The lawsuit reveals details about their son being bullied over being gay and Buddhist.

It includes a claim that their son was kicked down two flights of stairs at school within a day of taking his life.

The lawsuit also claims that evidence of the family’s complaints was destroyed.

Cy-Fair ISD did not return phone calls requesting a comment about the lawsuit.

The Houston Chronicle reports that after Asher’s death, Texas Child Protective Services began investigating the Truongs’ care of Asher and his older brother, who had been hospitalized for mental illness a few weeks before Asher’s suicide.

CPS found that David Truong was a strict disciplinarian who forced the boys to kneel for hours at a time on a brick fireplace hearth, according to the Chronicle. Asher’s older brother told CPS officials that his stepfather once threatened the boys with guns and placed a gun in his mouth. Asher’s parents denied the CPS findings and said David Truong took the guns out to teach the boys about gun safety. They also say Asher’s home environment had nothing to with his death. CPS placed Asher’s older brother in foster care after his suicide.

Click here to download a copy of the Truongs’ lawsuit. Watch KHOU’s report below:

—  John Wright

E. Texas school district says softball coaches acted ‘in good faith’ when they outed lesbian teen

Back in December we told you about Skye Wyatt, the student who’s suing her former softball coaches at Kilgore High School — Rhonda Fletcher and Cassandra Newell — for allegedly outing her as a lesbian to her mother.

The federal lawsuit filed by Skye and her mom, Barbara Wyatt, alleges that the coaches locked her in a locker room in March 2009 and threatened and interrogated her, before outing her to Barbara and kicking her off the team. The coaches reportedly were angry because Skye was dating a girl whom Newell may have previously dated.

In addition to the coaches, the lawsuit names the athletic director and the school district, which it says has an unconstitutional policy requiring staff to disclose the sexual orientation of students to their parents.

The case is now scheduled for trial in November, according to the News Journal of Longview.

The school district denies the allegations, arguing in court documents that the coaches and athletic director were “performing discretionary duties, in good faith, within the course and scope of (their) employment duties.”

Read the full text of the original lawsuit here.

—  John Wright

TABC, Fort Worth consider settlement with patrons injured in Rainbow Lounge raid

Tom Anable

Fort Worth city administrators are recommending that the City Council approve a settlement with Chad Gibson, one of the patrons who was injured in the Rainbow Lounge raid. The pending settlement is a result of mediation among the city, the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission and Gibson’s attorneys.

The amount of the settlement from the city is $400,000. The amount from TABC has not been released.

The raid by Fort Worth police officers and TABC agents occurred on June 28, 2008, the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall Rebellion.

Gibson suffered a head injury. George Armstrong was also injured and is included in the settlement. Pending felony charges against Gibson and Armstrong were dropped toward the end of last year before the mediation began.

Three Fort Worth police officers received short suspensions, and two TABC agents were fired, as a result of the incident.

Tom Anable, a founder of Fairness Fort Worth, a group formed in the wake of the raid, said he’s pleased that the city had come to an agreement.

“I think that the willingness of the city to enter into mediation without a federal lawsuit being filed is an indication of their willingness to move forward with our community,” Anable said.

Anable said this is the first time the city has entered into mediation without the threat of a federal lawsuit and the first time a city and TABC entered into joint negotiations.

“That speaks volumes of the city and of TABC,” Anable said. “No one wants to go backward, and that’s the story.”

While Anable said he has no inside information about the negotiations, he added, “As with any mediation, it’s successful if neither side is really happy but both are satisfied.”

Carolyn Beck, a spokeswoman for TABC, said, “TABC has engaged in settlement discussions with [Gibson] attorney Don Tittle. At this time the parties have agreed not to comment on those discussions until any resolution is finalized.”

Adam Seidel, an attorney for Gibson and Armstrong, was not available for comment this morning.

The item is on the agenda for Tuesday’s Fort Worth City Council meeting.

Gibson, who was hospitalized after the raid, is still receiving treatment for the injuries he sustained.

—  David Taffet

Anti-gay El Paso candidate says earthquake and tsunami in Japan were a curse from God

On Monday we told you how several anti-gay candidates are running for El Paso City Council in the wake of the ongoing battle over domestic partner benefits for municipal workers.

Well, one of those anti-gay candidates, Malcolm McGregor III, told ABC 7 he believes the tsunami and earthquake in Japan were a curse from God.

“Japan had built tsunami walls along their coasts but this tsunami was bigger than that. No matter what you say, they either weren’t blessed with protection or they were cursed with an earthquake,” McGregor said. “God did say, Christ did say that earthquakes would increase in the last days and that’s what we’re seeing.”

McGregor is part of the group El Pasoans for Traditional Family Values, which sponsored a successful ballot initiative to rescind DP benefits in November, after the benefits were approved by the City Council. McGregor is also a defendant in the pending federal lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the ballot initiative.

—  John Wright

What’s Brewing: Montana Lance; Troy Aikman; bills targeting gay marriage advance

Montana Lance was bullied because he had a lisp.

1. The parents of a 9-year-old boy who took his own life at school last year have filed a wrongful death suit against the Lewisville (Texas) Independent School District. Montana Lance’s parents claim the district failed to protect him from bullying and harassment. Montana had a learning disability and a lisp, which led to other students harassing him for being “gay,” according to The Dallas Morning News (subscription required). The federal lawsuit was filed on Friday, the one-year anniversary of Montana’s death. Montana (above) was found hanged in the nurse’s bathroom at Stewart’s Creek Elementary School in the Colony. (Watch video below from WFAA-TV.)

2. Former Cowboys QB Troy Aikman, long the subject of gay rumors, has separated from his wife after more than 10 years of marriage. There’s no word on what led to the separation, and we suppose it’s really none of our business, but we can’t help but wonder. Aikman is set to work the Super Bowl on Sunday for Fox.

3. Bills targeting gay marriage advance in Wyoming, Iowa.

—  John Wright

Lawsuit: High school softball coaches in E. Texas outed lesbian teen to her mom

Two high school softball coaches in East Texas are accused of maliciously outing a sophomore player as a lesbian to her mother, then kicking her off the team.

And Kilgore Independent School District officials are accused of defending the coaches’ actions by arguing that they were “legally obligated” to disclose the girl’s sexual orientation to her parents.

The student, identified as S.W., and her mother have filed a federal lawsuit against the coaches, the school district, and an assistant athletic director, accusing them of violating her privacy. The student and her mother are represented by the Austin-based Texas Civil Rights Project in the lawsuit filed Dec. 20 in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas.

The lawsuit alleges that the two coaches at Kilgore High School, Rhonda Fletcher and Cassandra Newell, locked S.W. in a locker room in March 2009 and threatened and interrogated her. The coaches allegedly were angry because S.W. was dating a girl whom Newell may have previously dated.

“Fletcher asked S.W. if she was gay, and accused her of having a sexual relationship with another girl. She also claimed that S.W. was spreading gossip about this other girl being ‘Coach Newell’s girlfriend,’” the lawsuit states. “The girl to whom Fletcher was referring had interacted with Newell at a number of school events. At the time of Fletcher and Newell’s confrontation, S.W. was dating that girl.”

—  John Wright

Atlanta Eagle’s $1 million settlement stands in sharp contrast to Rainbow Lounge outcome

Stephen V. Sprinkle  |  Unfinished Lives

The Atlanta City Council has voted 14-0 to award the Atlanta Eagle Bar $1 million in response to a federal lawsuit filed by a private attorney on behalf of 19 clients unjustly arrested in a botched police raid last September, according to a report by WTVM News 9 and the Associated Press.

The night of Sept. 10, 2009, four dozen police crashed the Underwear Night special event at the Atlanta Eagle, slamming patrons to the floor, using homophobic slurs, and arresting and detaining 62 people. Police targeted the gay bar on the pretext of illicit sex and drugs, allegations that were never proven.

The owner of the Eagle, Richard Ramey, went immediately on the offensive against the raid, saying to The Atlanta Journal Constitution on Sept. 12, 2009, ”Our problem is with the way our customers were treated.”

Nick Koperski, a bar patron present at the time of the raid, said in the same article: “I’m thinking, this is Stonewall. It’s like I stepped into the wrong decade.”

The Atlanta Police Department refused to cooperate with an investigation by the Atlanta Citizens Council. Charges brought against employees and patrons either failed to win convictions, collapsed for lack of evidence, or were otherwise dismissed, according to a report by EDGE.

Last March eight employees of the bar were found not guilty of trumped up charges by the Atlanta Police Department in a ruling handed down in Municipal Court.

Investigations into the raid found that the Atlanta Police Department did not have a warrant to raid the bar on the night in question. Mandatory revisions to police procedures will be carried out in response to the settlement.

The vindication of the Atlanta Eagle stands in sharp contrast to the outcome of the Fort Worth Police Department’s infamous raid on the Rainbow Lounge just months before the Atlanta debacle. Like the Georgia raid, all charges against patrons arrested at the popular Fort Worth gay bar have been dropped without comment from the city.

Unlike the Atlanta outcome, however, the Fort Worth Police Department has never issued an apology or admitted any wrongdoing in the illicit raid on the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall Rebellion.

This has been in spite of the public action disciplining officers of the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission (TABC) for their part in the raid, and a formal apology issued by the executive of the TABC. Factors contributing to the non-resolution of the Fort Worth police raid may include a less-than-robust defense of bar patrons by the Rainbow Lounge ownership at the time of the bust, and the less aggressive approach Fort Worth gay leaders employed to bring the city and the police department to account.

Justice for Atlanta, but how about for Fort Worth? We guess the mayor of Fort Worth has more control over the courts, the press, and the gay establishment in North Texas than the mayor of Atlanta. A good thing? You be the judge.

—  admin

Miss. lesbian student sues over rejected tux photo

SHELIA BYRD  |  Associated Press

JACKSON, Miss. — Another teenage lesbian is suing a rural Mississippi school district, this time over a policy banning young women from wearing tuxedos in senior yearbook portraits.

Ceara Sturgis’ dispute with the central Mississippi Copiah County School District started in 2009, well before a student in another Mississippi school district, Constance McMillen, found national attention in her fight to wear a tuxedo and take a same-sex date to prom.

On Tuesday, Aug. 17, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal lawsuit for Sturgis, claiming the Copiah County district discriminated against her on the basis of sex and gender stereotypes. Her photo and name were kept out of her senior yearbook.

The ACLU first contacted the district in October 2009 about the issue, but officials said they would adhere to a school policy. By the time Wesson Attendance Center yearbooks were released this spring, school officials had made clear Sturgis’ photo in a tuxedo wouldn’t be included. But Sturgis was surprised to see even her name was left out of the senior section.

“I guess in the back of my mind I knew that was going to happen, but I did have a little hope. I cried. I put my head down and put my hand over my face,” Sturgis said Tuesday.

The suit challenges the district’s policy allowing male students, but not female students, to wear a tux for senior portraits. The suit alleges a violation of Title IX, the federal law prohibiting discrimination based on gender.

Sturgis, who has worn masculine clothing since ninth grade and began classes at Mississippi State University on Wednesday, Aug. 18, said she felt as if she was being punished “just for being who I am.”

District Superintendent Rickey Clopton didn’t immediately return a call seeking comment.

Sturgis graduated with a 3.9 grade point average and participated in numerous extracurricular activities, including band and soccer, her attorneys said.

“Inclusion in the senior yearbook is a rite of passage for students, and it is shameful that Ceara was denied that chance,” Christine P. Sun, senior counsel with the ACLU Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Project said in a statement Tuesday.

“It’s unfair and unlawful to force students to conform to outdated notions about what boys and girls should look like without any regard to who they actually are as people.”

The ACLU attorney also represented McMillen, who drew inspiration from Sturgis in challenging Itawamba County school officials about McMillen’s plans for prom this year.

“I inspired her to do what she did and now we are friends,” Sturgis said.

But Sturgis didn’t face the same hostility as McMillen. Sturgis said her classmates and teachers were supportive, but she hopes hoping the suit will help other gay teenagers who feel they must conceal their gender identity.

“There are students who are hiding it their sexuality,” Sturgis said. “They have come up to me and told me they are. I had already decided what I was going to do, but it just took a little while.”

While she finished her senior year, Sturgis was living last fall with her grandparents in Wesson, a town of about 1,700 founded during the Civil War and 45 miles south of Jackson.

The students took their yearbook portraits at a studio and Sturgis tried on one of the “drapes” that females students are required to wear.

“The thought of a portrait of her in the ‘feminine’ clothing as a representation of her senior year embarrassed her, and she began crying,” the lawsuit states.

Sturgis later put on the tuxedo and was photographed.

School officials informed Sturgis’ mother, Veronica Rodriguez, early in the school year that the tuxedo photograph wouldn’t be allowed, according to the suit. At the time, Clopton said federal court decisions supported the school’s policy.

The lawsuit names the school district, superintendent Clopton and school principal Ronald Greer. It seeks unspecified damages and attorneys’ fees.

The filing comes weeks after McMillen reached a settlement in her federal lawsuit against the Itawamba County School District.

The north Mississippi district had canceled its prom rather than allow McMillen attend with her girlfriend. The district agreed to pay $35,000 and follow a nondiscrimination policy as part of the settlement, though it argued such a policy was already in place

—  John Wright