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

Miss. school district asks judge to throw out suit from lesbian whose photo was left out of yearbook

Ceara Sturgis

SHELIA BYRD  |  Associated Press

JACKSON, Miss. — A school district wants a federal judge to throw out a lawsuit filed by a lesbian who claimed her rights were violated because the senior photograph of her in a tuxedo was left out of the high school yearbook.

The Copiah County School District said in court documents that Ceara Sturgis didn’t identify a constitutional right that had been violated in the suit filed in August.

“Ms. Sturgis has no constitutionally protected right to appear in the yearbook at all, let alone in a protected right to appear in the senior photo section wearing a tuxedo,” according to the documents filed Friday, Oct. 1.

The district has asked U.S. Magistrate Judge Keith Ball to dismiss the case, and referenced a similar 2002 lawsuit in Florida that had been dismissed by a federal judge. That case, though, was later appealed and a settlement was reached.

A lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed the lawsuit on Sturgis’s behalf, said the U.S. Supreme Court has held that discrimination based on gender stereotypes is illegal.

“We brought this case because no student should have to compromise her identity in order to participate in an activity, like the yearbook, that is essential to the high school experience,” said Christine P. Sun, senior counsel with the ACLU Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Project.

“It’s peculiar that the school district would rely so heavily on that one judge’s decision in Florida, since that decision was appealed and eventually led to the district changing its discriminatory policy in a settlement agreement,” Sun said.

The suit names the district, superintendent Rickey Clopton and Wesson Attendance Center principal Ronald Greer. Clopton didn’t immediately respond to calls seeking comment Monday.

Sturgis, who is now attending Copiah-Lincoln Community College, graduated from Wesson Attendance Center this past spring. While other photographs of her were in the yearbook, her name and photograph were left out of the senior section.

The ACLU’s suit claimed the district discriminated against her on the basis of sex and gender stereotypes.

Female students could only wear drapes in the yearbook portraits and males wore tuxedos. Sturgis has dressed in masculine clothing for years, and said she wasn’t comfortable in the drapes.

The district’s motion referenced a similar case in Hillsborough County, Fla.

In 2002, Nicole Youngblood, then 17, sued the county’s school board and school district because she wasn’t allowed to wear a white shirt, tie and jacket instead of a drape in her senior portrait, court records show.

The suits filed by Youngblood and Sturgis both claimed discrimination under Title IX, the federal law prohibiting discrimination based on gender.

U.S. District Judge Susan C. Bucklew dismissed Youngblood’s lawsuit in September 2002, saying there was no constitutionally protected right involved in the school’s decision regarding senior yearbook portraits.

A settlement was reached after Youngblood appealed the judge’s decision, said Linda Cobbe, spokeswoman for Hillsborough County Public Schools.

As part of the settlement, the district now gives its seniors two weeks to appeal their principal’s dress policies, said Cobbe.

“We’ve had nothing exactly like that again. We’ve had students who wanted to wear the clothing of other gender for dances, and I think they allowed it,” Cobbe said.

—  John Wright