Al Franken asks public for help passing Student Non-Discrimination Act

Sen. Al Franken

Sen. Al Franken

Sen. Al Franken, D – Minnesota, is asking the public for help passing S. 555, The Student Non-Discrimination Act, a bill that would prohibit discrimination against public school students on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Under the provisions of S. 555 students who experienced discrimination because of their real or perceived sexual orientation or because of their association with LGBT people could bring a civil suit against the school officials or districts responsible for the discrimination. The bill currently has 34 co-sponsors (none from Texas) and its House companion (H.R. 998 by Rep. Jared Polis, D – Colorado) has 150 (with 7 Texan co-sponsors including Houston’s own Sheila Jackson Lee and Al Green) . Both bills have been referred to committee but neither has received a hearing, a crucial step towards becoming law.

In the video requesting the public call their Senators (after the break) Franken points out that federal law already provides protection for school children harassed because of race, color, sex, religion, disability, and national origin, but that no protection exists for sexual orientation or gender identity.

The inclusion of “association” in S. 555 is particularly well thought out. According to the Williams Institute nearly 1 in 5 same-sex couples in the United States is raising children, in Harris County 18% of same-sex couples are.  As these children enter school it’s important that they be able to receive an education without harassment or bullying due to who their parents are.

Franken is asking people to call the Senate switchboard at 202-224-3121 and encourage their Senator’s to support the bill.

—  admin

Charter school won’t reconsider coach’s firing

Nichole Williams says Life School Waxahachie terminated her because she’s a lesbian but there’s nothing she can do about it

Williams.Nikki

DREAM DERAILED | Nichole Williams, shown in the Life School gym, had always dreamed of coaching high school girls basketball, a dream that was about to come true. But one day before basketball practice started, Williams was fired from Life School Waxahachie, and she says it’s because she is a lesbian.

JOHN WRIGHT  |
Senior Political Writer

wright@dallasvoice.com

WAXAHACHIE — Ever since she played girls basketball in high school, Nichole “Nikki” Williams has dreamed of one day coaching the sport.

This year her dream was about to come true after she was named varsity girls basketball coach at Life School Waxahachie, a charter high school 30 miles south of Dallas.

Then, just one day before basketball practice began in October, Williams was abruptly fired.

The 26-year-old Williams, who also taught ninth-grade geography and was an assistant volleyball coach, filed a grievance alleging she was terminated based on her sexual orientation, which reportedly became known to school officials after her fiancée began attending volleyball games this fall.

“I feel like they just ripped it all away from me for absolutely nothing,” Williams said. “That’s the hard part, and that’s what makes me sick.

“The story is, we’re still being persecuted,” Williams told Dallas Voice.

“That’s a strong word, but it’s true. The fact that as teachers in a professional world, you still have to hide who you are, it’s not fair. I don’t think anybody should have to hide who they are.”

An administrator at Life School, which has 3,700 students at five campuses in North Texas, including one in Oak Cliff, denied this week that Williams was fired for being gay. However, citing privacy concerns, he refused to elaborate on the reason for her dismissal.

Unfortunately for Williams, she may not have any legal recourse.

Texas is one of 29 states that lack bans on anti-gay job discrimination, which isn’t prohibited by federal law, either. And, although case law generally protects gay teachers at public schools, experts say courts have ruled that those provisions don’t apply to charter schools, even though they’re taxpayer-funded.

In her initial grievance against Life School, Williams requested reinstatement. But she’s since given up on that and now merely wants the termination removed from her record so she can pursue her dream of coaching basketball elsewhere.

“Basically, you’re looking at a 26-year-old teacher who for the rest of her life has a black mark because she’s been terminated,” said Williams’ fiancée, Jen DeSaegher. “She’ll always have to check the ‘I’ve been terminated’ box for the rest of her career, and that’s not going to go over well.”

‘More than just a coach’

During her three years at Life School, Williams said she received positive performance evaluations, promotions and even a letter of commendation from the superintendent.

Williams was also very popular among both students and parents, despite the fact that they knew she was gay in conservative Ellis County.

About 100 parents and more than 50 students at Life School Waxahachie — which has a total enrollment of roughly 300 — signed a petition calling for Williams to be reinstated.

“She is a passionate teacher who profoundly affects our children’s lives on a daily basis,” the petition states. “We cannot afford to lose such a valuable teacher and coach.”

In response to the petition, along with a steady barrage of emails and phone calls, Life School administrators set up a meeting with parents this week. Eleven parents gathered in a classroom at Life School Waxahachie on Tuesday afternoon, Nov. 15, and demanded answers about Williams’ termination. But they got relatively few.

Charles Pulliam, Life School’s director of human resources, and Ena Meyers, principal of the Waxahachie campus, told parents they’re barred from sharing details about personnel matters and wanted to protect Williams’ privacy.

“We made the decision that was right for the kids,” said Pulliam, who asked the parents to trust the school with their children’s safety. “I really wish I could share more, but I can’t.”

Pulliam made vague references to the school’s mission statement and its “standards of excellence,” saying his decision to terminate Williams was based on “a global view.”

“I can tell you 100 percent, we did what we felt was right for Life School,” he said, calling the decision “painful.”

Although he provided no details, Pulliam confirmed to the parents that Williams was terminated based solely on an incident that took place on Thursday, Oct. 13.

According to Williams’ account of the incident, four volleyball players dropped by her classroom following school photographs instead of going to the remainder of their assigned class.

For Williams, it was a conference period, and she said she was in and out of the classroom. Williams maintains she repeatedly told the students they needed to go to their assigned class and that she wouldn’t vouch for them.

But the students didn’t leave, and they were later investigated for skipping class.

On Friday, Oct. 14, the students received one-day detentions.

On Monday, Oct. 17, Williams was placed on administrative leave, and on Tuesday, Oct. 18, she was terminated.

Williams acknowledged she should have reported the students.

“I expected to be in trouble and I knew I should have been,” she said. “But to be fired, I was shocked.”

The parents who signed the petition agreed, saying they feel the punishment was “extreme” and “disproportionate.”

At the meeting this week, parents complained that Williams was replaced two days later by someone who is “unqualified,” because he’s never coached basketball or girls sports. Williams’ replacement also recently resigned mid-year from an athletic director position in another district.

The parents also accused Life School officials of lying to their daughters, who were told after a volleyball game the same night Williams was fired that she was “moving on to other opportunities.” The parents said they only learned of Williams’ termination from their kids.

“She’s more than just a coach,” one parent told Pulliam and Meyers. “She loves her students.”

“I did not feel like my child was in any danger,” said another parent — a man wearing a cowboy hat, Wrangler jeans and work boots who spoke with a Southern drawl. “I wish the school had a lot more leaders like her.”

One parent asked point-blank whether Williams was fired due to her sexual orientation.

“What is her sexual orientation?” Pulliam responded.

“Lesbian,” the parent said.

Pulliam paused at length before saying softly, “Certainly I would never consider that.”

School says decision is final

Pulliam said later he wasn’t aware of Williams’ sexual orientation — even though it was highlighted in her grievance filed Oct. 25.

“I’ve only been here three months,” Pulliam told Dallas Voice in a phone interview Wednesday. “I really don’t know much about her other than what happened as part of this.”

Pulliam said sexual orientation isn’t included in Life School’s employment nondiscrimination policy. However, sexual orientation does appear in sections of the school’s Code of Ethics that govern employees’ conduct toward colleagues and students. Regardless, experts say the policies aren’t enforceable because Texas has no statute to back them up.  And Pulliam denied that Williams’ termination had anything to do with the fact that she’s gay.

“I don’t want it to be about that at all,” he said. “It never has been, and I really think that’s just the wrong path. We don’t wish any harm on Ms. Williams whatsoever.”

DeSaegher, Williams’ partner, said Life School’s board of directors is made up of people affiliated with conservative evangelical institutions, including Dallas Baptist University, Southwestern Assemblies of God University and The Oaks Fellowship.

But Pulliam declined to discuss the backgrounds of board members.

“It really doesn’t make sense to talk about that stuff,” he said. “This is about Life School doing the right thing for our students and about us looking to protect Ms. Williams and her rights.”

Asked about his personal views on homosexuality, Pulliam said, “My personal opinion is not important here at all.”

Pulliam also reiterated what he told the parents the night before, that Williams’ termination is final and that the school won’t remove it from her record.

When parents pleaded with Pulliam on Tuesday to allow Williams to move on, he admitted he had the authority to remove the termination from her record but said he wouldn’t — “because I’m confident we did the right thing.”

After the meeting, parents expressed frustration.

“My reaction was, I really don’t feel like we got anywhere,” said Jennifer McCoy. “I feel like he was dodging all of our questions.”

McCoy has a son and a daughter who attend Life School Waxahachie. Her daughter, a junior who plays both volleyball and basketball, has attended Life School since fourth grade.

“I think that has a lot to do with it,” McCoy said when asked if she thinks Williams was fired because she’s gay. “Everything else, to me, it’s not adding up at all.”

Another parent, Wendy Williams, said she has four children who attend Life School, including a daughter who plays volleyball and basketball. Wendy Williams, no relation to Nichole, said her kids have attended Life School Waxahachie since it opened, but until now she’s never had a major issue with the administration.

“I think they tried to get rid of her because she’s gay,” Wendy Williams said. “They can’t say that, but I don’t see any other reasons.”

Wendy Williams said although she was raised “very conservative,” she doesn’t think Nichole Williams’ sexual orientation should be an issue.

“I don’t think it affected her coaching, and I don’t think it affected her relationship with the children,” Wendy Williams said. “I don’t think it matters.”

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition November 18, 2011.

—  Kevin Thomas

FFW to FWISD: Walk the walk

Advocacy group says school officials need to implement training, enforcement processes

Anable.Tom

Tom Anable

 

Tammye Nash  |  Senior Editor
nash@dallasvoice.com

FORT WORTH — Representatives of Fairness Fort Worth are set to meet next Tuesday, Oct. 25, with Walter Dansby, interim superintendent of the Fort Worth

Independent School District, and FFW President Tom Anable said his organization is hoping to see the district’s plans for implementing training and enforcement processes related to its anti-harassment and anti-bullying policies.

In the past year, the Fort Worth school board has, since the first of this year, expanded the district’s anti-harassment and anti-bullying policies to include protections based on gender identity and gender expression; protections based on sexual orientation were already included.

The board voted in January to include those protections in policies applying to faculty and staff members, and in June to policies applying to students.

LGBT advocates have routinely praised the district for those votes, noting that the changes make the FWISD policies among the most progressive and comprehensive in the state. This week, however, Anable said advocates have become frustrated with the district’s slow progress in implementing training regarding the policies and in enforcing them.

“They are talking the talk, now we want them to walk the walk,” Anable said.

He pointed to a series of recent incidences in Fort Worth schools as evidence that training and enforcement are lacking, including the mid-September furor that erupted over a Western Hills High School student’s alleged anti-gay comments in class.

Dakota Ary told the media that his German class teacher, Kristopher Franks, sent him to the principal after he made a comment to a friend during a classroom discussion, basically saying that as a Christian, he believes homosexuality is wrong.

Franks, however, said that Ary made the comment directly to him, that the comment was not pertinent to any classroom discussion and

Vasquez.Carlos

Carlos Vasquez

that it was part of a pattern of anti-gay comments and behavior aimed at him by Ary and three other students in the class.

Although Ary was initially suspended, school officials rescinded the punishment and cleared his record after Ary’s mother brought in Liberty Counsel’s Matt Krause to represent them and complained to school district officials.

Within days, school officials notified Franks that they were launching an investigation of him based on unrelated charges of inappropriate behavior that had just surfaced. Franks was suspended with pay for the duration of the investigation, but returned to the classroom three days later after the investigation cleared him of any wrongdoing.
Franks still ended up with a “letter of concern” in his file, the lowest form of discipline the district can take against a teacher, and was required to take a course in classroom management.

In an email to school board members dated Oct. 4, Franks also said that the Western Hills High School principal had, on his first day back in class, conducted an in-class evaluation — during the class that includes Dakota Ary — that Franks said was unwarranted and overly harsh. Franks said the principal refused to discipline a student who put on a pink shirt and “a pink lady’s hat” and pranced around the room to mock Franks, even though the principal was in the room when it happened.

Franks also said he learned from other students that the group of students who had been harassing him previously, during the time while he was suspended, were allowed by a substitute teacher to “dress in drag” and make fun of Franks.

Although Franks has since told colleagues the problem had been addressed and settled to his satisfaction, Anable said this week that the fact the harassment was allowed in the first place points to a lack of training and enforcement on the anti-harassment and anti-bullying policies.

In a second recent incident, a secretary at Carter-Riverside High School recently sent a memo through the school’s email system in which she quoted biblical passages supposedly condemning homosexuality while questioning the wisdom of allowing a “gender-bending day” during the school’s homecoming week activities.

“I am concerned that it may cause more confusion with those who are struggling with their own sexuality, which is common for teens,” wrote Victoria Martinez, who works in the school’s internal finance office.

She continued, “As representatives of FWISD, I would hate to think we are partakers of encouraging a lifestyle, which is an abomination unto the LORD, and which may not be acceptable to many parents of our children. We should strive to keep our students’ focus on academics and not what they or others are doing in the bedroom.”

And, Anable said, there have been reports that same-sex couples at the district’s Diamon Hill-Jarvis High School have been disciplined for holding hands at school, while opposite-sex couples holding hands have not gotten in trouble.

Openly gay FWISD Board of Trustees member Carlos Vasquez said Wednesday that he was disappointed that Fairness Fort Worth had decided to go public with its criticisms since, “We have already solved most of the issues and concerns they are bringing up.”

Vasquez said that had “visited with Kris Franks” during the recent Tarrant County Gay Pride Picnic, and that while “there were some concerns on his first day back in the class, those were quickly resolved.”

And Vasquez said that district officials had responded quickly to Martinez’s email, removing it from the email system and reprimanding the secretary.

“As soon as this was brought to my attention, I spoke to Supt. Dansby, the superintendent took care of it immediately,” Vasquez said, adding that Dansby “took the appropriate measures” against Martinez but that he could not elaborate further because he cannot discuss personnel matters.

Vasquez also said that he had not heard of any complaints from Diamon Hill-Jarvis before a call Wednesday from Dallas Voice.

“That’s one of my schools. It’s in my [school board] district,” Vasquez said. “I have already called the principal there and she said she had not heard anything about that, either. She assured me that all the students are being treated fairly.”

Vasquez continued, “I am kind of surprised that [Fairness Fort Worth] felt the need to go to the press with this. Supt. Dansby is working with the LGBT community, he’s working with me on these issues. This is the most open this school district has ever been with the LGBT community.”

But Anable said Fairness Fort Worth is simply trying to let the school district know that the community is watching and expects the district to follow through on its commitments in terms of training and enforcement of the anti-harassment and anti-bullying policies.

“We are not trying to be overly critical. But we do want them to know that we will keep the pressure on,” Anable said. “We have these policies in place, and we want to make sure they are enforced.”

Anable said his organization also wants to make sure that the LGBT community “has a place at the table” as the district continues its search for a permanent superintendent.

Dansby was appointed interim superintendent after former Supt. Melody Johnson resigned in June amid controversy, and the district continues a nation-wide search for a permanent replacement for Johnson.

Anable said the school board “creating a forum/focus group to assist the consultants they’ve hired to conduct the search for a new permanent superintendent, and we want to know if the district intends to include the LGBT community in that focus group,” Anable said. “We’ve made great progress in the schools here in Fort Worth. Now we don’t want to see them bring in someone who will ignore that progress and take the school district backwards on our issues.”

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition October 21, 2011.

—  Kevin Thomas

Teacher accuses TC College of discrimination

Gill says English Department chair at Northeast Campus told her the state and the school ‘do not like homosexuals’

Jacqueline “Jackie” Gill
Jacqueline “Jackie” Gill

TAMMYE NASH  |  Senior Editor
nash@dallasvoice.com

HURST — Jacqueline “Jackie” Gill filed suit Wednesday, Sept. 7, against a professor and a dean at Northeast Campus of Tarrant County College in Hurst, claiming that she was denied the opportunity to apply for a permanent, full- time teaching position there because of the English Department chair’s bias against what he perceived her sexual orientation to be.

Tarrant County College adopted a nondiscrimination policy prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation on March 9 of this year.

Frank Griffis, director of public relations and marketing for Tarrant County College, said it “would not be appropriate” for school officials to comment on pending litigation. He also said school officials had not yet been served with papers and therefore had not read the complaint.

Gill said she had worked as a full-time temporary English professor for about a year at the Northeast Campus. But when the position was to be made permanent, English Department Chair Eric Devlin refused to allow her to apply for the permanent position.

Gill said when she complained about Devlin to Northeast Campus Humanities Division Dean Antonio R. Howell, he initially seemed to side with her, but after speaking to Devlin, Howell refused to communicate further with her. Gill said although she is a lesbian and has never tried to hide that fact, she had never talked about her orientation with Devlin or anyone else at the school.

Both Devlin and Howell are named as co-defendants in the lawsuit.

Gill is represented in the lawsuit by Lambda Legal South Central Region staff attorney Ken Upton, joined by pro bono counsel Benjamin D. Williams from the law firm of Gibson, Dunn and Crutcher.

Gill and Upton held a press conference Wednesday to announce that the lawsuit had been filed earlier that morning in U.S. district court in Fort Worth. The press conference was held at a Hurst hotel located just a few blocks from the Tarrant County College campus where Gill had taught.

According to the complaint filed Wednesday, and statements Gill made during the press conference, Gill was first hired on a full time, temporary basis as an English professor on Aug. 21, 2009. A little more than a month later, at the end of October, a female “dual-enrollment” student — a high school student who was also taking college classes — in Gill’s distance learning class cheated by stealing an exam and skipped some classes.

The student’s high school counselor told Gill that the student has a history of disruptive behavior, and when the student dropped the class, Gill was told the situation was closed.

On Nov. 9, however, Devlin called Gill into his office and told her the student had accused Gill of “flirting” with female students. Gill denied the accusations, noting that there was always another teacher in the class at the same time.

That’s when Devlin responded with “a lengthy diatribe about homosexuals and how the Texas public views them,” according to the complaint. Gill said Devlin went on to say that Texas is a conservative state and TCC is a conservative school, and that “Texas and Tarrant County College do not like homosexuals.”

Gill continued to teach at TCC, receiving high praise and compliments from students and staff alike, including from Devlin. Then in May 2010, she and other full-time temporary professors were told by Howell that all seven temporary full- time positions were being made permanent, and that they were being re-designated as adjunct faculty until the permanent positions were filled.

Gill said Howell also encouraged her and the other temporary professors to apply for the permanent jobs. Gill applied for all seven but was the only one of the seven temporary professors not hired for the permanent positions. Gill said that she was, in fact, not even allowed to interview for any of the positions, even though her experience and credentials were as good as or better than those who were hired.

Gill said she met with Howell and told him about Devlin’s anti-gay comments and refusal to allow her to interview for the permanent positions. She said Howell promised her to discuss the situation with Devlin immediately, but that he never got back in touch with her.

She said she also got no response when she tried to discuss the situation with the vice president and president of Tarrant County College.

Gill continued to teach as an adjunct professor at the campus through December 2010, although, she said, Devlin’s attitude toward her became “even more hostile.”

And she said that although she was originally assigned classes for the 2011 spring term, as she was preparing for those classes she discovered she had been removed as the professor. When she inquired about the status of the class, Gill said, she was told that Devlin had specifically instructed that those classes be taken away from her.

Upton said that Devlin and Howell violated the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution by refusing to allow Gill to apply for the permanent teaching position. He said Gill’s suit is asking that she be allowed to complete the application process and that she be compensated for the time she has been unemployed.

Gill, who is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Texas at Arlington, said she would love to get a teaching job with TCC, and while she would prefer to work at another campus, she is willing to go back to the Northeast Campus and work again in Devlin’s department.

“I worked hard. I earned it,” Gill said of the permanent position. “I have nothing to be ashamed of. If it [her working in Devlin’s department again] would be awkward for anyone, I think it would be awkward for him [Devlin] because he is the one who was in the wrong.”

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 9, 2011.

—  Michael Stephens

Polis, Franken tell bullies to ‘pick on someone your own size’ as they introduce SNDA

Rep. Jared Polis, left, and Sen. Al Franken today introduced the Student Non-Discrimination Act that would protect LGBT students from discrimination and harassment.

As President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama hosted a group of students, parents, teachers and other concerned citizens — including Fort Worth’s own Joel Burns — at the White House today, Openly gay U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo., and Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., introduced identical bills, called the Student Non-Discrimination Act, in the House and the Senate that would protect students from discrimination and harassment based on “actual or percieved sexual orientation or gender identity.”

In an e-mail announcing the proposed legislation, Polis cited recent efforts by school officials in Flour Bluff High School, near Corpus Christi, to prevent a gay-straight alliance from meeting on school grounds.

“It’s bad enough when a school turns a blind eye to bullying. But when a school district in Texas moved to ban all extracurricular clubs in order to avoid having to approve a Gay-Straight Alliance, it really crossed the line,” Polis said in the e-mail. “The school itself became the bully.”

He added, “Our message is clear: Pick on somebody your own size.”

Polis acknowledged that “the odds of this bill passing this session are uncertain” because some Republicans, “regardless of their personal beliefs, are reluctant to vote for LGBT-friendly legislation.

“But, even though the odds are against me, I can’t stay silent in the face of bullying — especially when the people who are supposed to protect students from bullying have become the bullies themselves,” Polis said, encouraging individuals to become “citizen sponsors” by adding their name as a supporter here.

The ACLU has quickly come out in support of the legislation, with ACLU legislative representative Ian Thompson saying that the legislation could have “a profound impact in improving the lives of LGBT students in our schools.”

Thompson pointed to the numerous LGBT teens who committed suicde after being bullied relentlessly in the late summer and fall of 2010 as evidence of the need for the legislation. Seth Walsh, 13, was one of those teens, and his mother, Wendy Walsh, is an ACLU client. She, too, weigh in today on the need for the SNDA.

“I can’t bring my son back. But schools can make a difference today by taking bullying seriously when students and parents tell them about it. It’s time for change. We have to create better schools for everyone,” said Wendy Walsh, who was also among those attending the White House Conference on Bullying.

In a written statement released after the SNDA was introduced, ACLU officials pointed out that while federal laws currently protect students on the basis of their race, color, sex, religion, disability or national origin, no federal statute explicitly protects students on the basis of actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity.

“The SNDA, like Title IX, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the various disability civil rights statutes, is not simply legislation that would remedy discrimination after it occurs, but instead would also have the important impact of preventing discrimination from occurring,” the ACLU statement said.

To read the ACLU’s statement in support of the Student Non-Discrimination Act, go here. To see video of Wendy Walsh telling her son’s story, go here.

—  admin

Flour Bluff ISD will allow GSA and other groups on campus — at least for now

Trustees for Flour Bluff High Independent School District approved a resolution late Tuesday night to allow a proposed Gay-Straight Alliance — along with other non-curricular groups — to meet on the school campus, at least temporarily, according to KRISTV, the NBC station in Corpus Christi.

The vote allows the the groups, including a GSA, to meet while the district conducts a study before making a permanent decision. The vote came after nearly five hours, about four of which the trustees spent in a closed executive session discussing the situation.

The decision came after the ACLU threatened legal action against the Flour Bluff High School, where school officials had refused to allow student Nikki Peet to form the GSA, although other groups, like the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, were allowed to meet on campus. School officials then banned all groups to avoid having to allow the GSA.

Nikki Peet was not able to attend the meeting because she is in the hospital being treated for an infection. But her mother, Maria Peet, and other family members were there to speak for her. Members of the GSA at Texas A&M University in Corpus Christi — to whom Nikki Peet had appealed for help — also attended the school board meeting.

Jay Raymond with the TAMU-CC group said his group would be there to “see this through,” and pledged, “There is no chance of this dying down until what we want is what we get.”

—  admin

Agree or not, free speech is protected

Earlier today, David Taffet reported on the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling upholding the right of those right-of-right-wing loonies at Westboro Baptist “God Hates Fags” Church to stage their protests outside the funerals of U.S. servicemen and women killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Westboro protests, the court said, are a form of speech and they are protected under the First Amendment.

Just as a reminder, the Phelps Clan of Westboro Baptist stages protests outside the funerals to, basically, cheer God on for letting these servicemen and women get killed. The Westboro nuts say that the war and the deaths of the servicemembers is God’s punishment on this country for being too liberal, especially when it comes to gay rights. The case started in 2006 when the father of a Marine killed in Iraq sued the Westboro group and won an $11 milllion judgment in trial court. But the appeals court overturned the trial court decision, and the Supremes upheld the appeals court.

Now, in a similar situation, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that officials at Neuqua Valley High School in Naperville, Ill., cannot prohibit students from wearing slogan T-shirts to school, even if those slogans might hurt some students’ feelings. Those shirts are a form of free speech, the court said, and are protected under the First Amendment, according to reports on the Wall Street Journal’s “Law Blog.”

—  admin

Removal of sexual orientation doesn’t stop bigots — or the ACLU — from opposing anti-bullying bill

Jonathan Saenz

The removal of sexual orientation from an anti-bullying bill didn’t stop anti-gay groups from opposing the measure during a Texas House committee hearing on Tuesday afternoon.

Jonathan Saenz, director of legislative affiars for the Plano-based Liberty Institute, told the House public education committee that even though sexual orientation and other enumerated categories were removed from Rep. Mark Strama’s HB 224, Saenz fears the categories will be restored to the measure at some point.

“It is about the gay rights, the homosexual community, the transgender community, and an effort to create special categories and special rights in our law that don’t currently exist, and really carve off protections for some groups and not others,” Saenz told the committee. “It’s not about bullying, and it’s not about solving this problem. It’s about creating new classes of people and giving special protections to some categories and not others.”

Strama said during the hearing that he has no plans to restore the enumerated categories to the bill.

“We took all those classes out so we wouldn’t have to have this discusssion,” said Strama, D-Austin. “It’s not my intention to put any of that list back in the bill. At this point I’d like to keep it the way it is if we can get this bill moving through the process.”

Representatives from Equality Texas, which supports the bill and testified in favor of it on Tuesday, have said the enumerated categories were removed to improve the bill’s chances of passage and de-politicize the issue.

Also testifying against Strama’s bill were both the anti-gay Texas Eagle Forum and the normally pro-equality American Civil Liberties Union.

ACLU representatives say Strama’s bill, which would allow school officials to crack down on cyberbullying that occurs off campus, creates concerns about free speech and parental rights.

The bill was left pending in the education committee. To watch video of the committee hearing, go here.

—  John Wright

Lesbian students enter to cheers at Minn. school

CHRIS WILLIAMS | Associated Press

CHAMPLIN, Minn. — Two lesbian high school students who fought for the right to walk together as part of a royalty court made their entrances Monday, Jan. 31 to the cheers of hundreds of classmates.

Sarah Lindstrom and Desiree Shelton wore matching black suits with pink ties and held hands as they entered the Snow Days Pep Fest at Champlin Park High School in Minneapolis’ northwest suburbs.

The reaction came as a relief to the couple and school administrators. The district has been stung by criticism of its policies toward homosexuality and the alleged bullying of a gay student who killed himself.

“It felt amazing,” said Shelton, adding that she was too nervous to notice dozens rise to give her a standing ovation as she walked in with Lindstrom. “I think we were too focused on getting to the stage.”

If there were any boos, they were drowned about by supporters. “I feel so much better,” Lindstrom said while surrounded by friends after the rally.

Sarah’s mother, Shannon Lindstrom, camera in hand, joined the other mothers of children in the royalty court after the rally.

“They had a lot of courage,” she said Shelton and her daughter. “Look how far we’ve come.”

Students voted onto the royalty court traditionally enter the assembly in boy-girl pairs. After Lindstrom and Shelton, both 18, were elected, school officials last week announced a change in procedure: court members would walk in individually or accompanied by a parent or favorite teacher.

School officials said they merely wanted to prevent the two from being teased. But on Friday, two human rights groups sued on their behalf.

On Saturday, in federally mediated talks, school officials relented. The two sides agreed that members of the royalty court would be escorted by anyone meaningful to them, regardless of gender or age.

“This is a new chapter for the district,” said Sam Wolfe, a lawyer with the Southern Poverty Law Center, which filed the lawsuit along with the National Center for Lesbian Rights and local assistance from the Minneapolis law firm of Faegre and Benson.

Young women in evening gowns and young men in dark suits walked through a makeshift arch and to the stage during the Monday afternoon pep rally complete with cheerleaders, dance teams and the school band. So did two young women in suits, and the crowd cheered for each one.

“They did great,” said Principal Mike George. “I’m proud of our students.”

Several of the students in the crowd didn’t understand what all the fuss over the lesbian couple.

“Some people are against it, but they don’t care if they walk down a stupid runway,” said Maggie Hesaliman, 14.

Melissa Biellefe, 16, said, “We’re a pretty respectful school. Our rule is just let people be who they are.”

Champlin Park is part of the Anoka-Hennepin school district, Minnesota’s largest, which has been in the spotlight in the past year for its handling of issues involving gay and lesbian students.

It has been in the crossfire for its policy of “neutrality” in classroom discussions of homosexuality. It was reached in 2009 as a way to balance the demands of liberal and conservative families, but neither side has been completely happy with it.

The issues flared again last year after a gay student, Justin Aaberg, killed himself. His mother has said she heard too late from Justin’s friends that he had been harassed.

Aaberg was one of six students who committed suicide in the district since the beginning of the 2009-10 school year, and advocacy groups have linked some of the other deaths to the bullying of gay students.

However, the district said last month its own investigation did not find evidence that bullying contributed to the students’ deaths.

—  John Wright

Wash. teen files lawsuit accusing district of failing to protect him from bullying

Malicious MySpace page listed sexual orientation as ‘unsure’

GENE JOHNSON  |  Associated Press

SEATTLE  — A 19-year-old graduate of Aberdeen High School sued the school district Tuesday, Dec. 7, blaming officials for failing to keep him from being bullied by classmates who smashed an egg on his head, taunted him over his race and perceived sexual orientation, and set up a malicious MySpace page in his name.

Sometimes shaking as he recalled the torment during a news conference, Russell Dickerson III said the harassment made it hard to focus on school and was so traumatic that even now the memory sometimes keeps him from leaving his house. His father, Russell Dickerson Jr., said the family complained to school officials repeatedly, to no avail.

“It was like a prison sentence,” the teen said. “I found myself dreading school.”

The American Civil Liberties Union of Washington filed the lawsuit on Dickerson’s behalf in U.S. District Court in Tacoma. It alleges civil rights violations, violations of state anti-discrimination law and negligence, and seeks compensation for emotional harm and lost opportunities.

Aberdeen Superintendent Thomas A. Opstad said the district denies letting any student be harassed without prompt corrective action.

“During Russell’s time as a student, the district worked diligently and collaboratively with the Dickerson family to investigate and address Russell’s complaints about his treatment,” he said. “Where misconduct was substantiated, students who engaged in harassment were appropriately disciplined.”

He noted that Dickerson is a now a member of the district’s staff and provides tutoring to elementary students, which Opstad said shows the former student feels comfortable in the district.

ACLU spokesman Doug Honig said Dickerson’s comfort in tutoring elementary students “in no way speaks to the harassment that he endured for six years in junior high and high school.”

Dickerson and the ACLU said they hoped the lawsuit would help amplify the attention school bullying has garnered lately. In Washington, where officials say that nearly 15,000 students were suspended for bullying in the 2008-09 school year, a new law requires every public school to have a policy for dealing with bullying.

And in response to recent suicides by bullied gay young people, Seattle author and columnist Dan Savage launched a popular national campaign inspiring many people — including President Barack Obama — to record video messages assuring teens, “It gets better.”

Dickerson said the harassment began in junior high in 2003. By the next year, he and his family had complained repeatedly about bullying, and his frustrated parents took it up with the school board during a meeting that fall, according to a 2004 article in The Daily World newspaper of Aberdeen.

Nevertheless, the family said, the harassment continued. Dickerson’s father, a prison guard, is black and his mother is white, and Dickerson said his peers subjected him to racial slurs and derogatory comments about his physical appearance and perceived sexual orientation. They sometimes groped his chest and threw things at him, the lawsuit claims.

The ACLU became involved in the case in 2007, after students created a fake MySpace page in Dickerson’s name. The web page featured an unflattering picture of Dickerson which had been taken without his knowledge at school, and listed his sexual orientation as “not sure,” The Daily World reported.

One student, Brandon Peterman, pleaded guilty to a harassment charge and was sentenced to seven days in jail for writing a racial slur on the Web page and saying, “i’ll hang you so fast if you tell onme (sic) ever again.”

Peterman told the newspaper, “I’m really sorry he had to see it. I just wish I could take it back and it was just an immature thing to do for all of us.”

Then-Superintendent Martin Kay said at the time that he called Dickerson’s family to apologize.

Opstad said Aberdeen took several steps to promote acceptance in schools, including providing guides on the topic to parents and students, discussing bullying at parent-teacher conferences, and training all staff and students to reduce harassment.

But the ACLU said Tuesday that even after that the district failed to take meaningful steps to create a safe learning environment.

Dickerson, who is enrolled in an online college program and hopes to work in information technology, encouraged other bullied youngsters to persevere. Getting an education is too important not to, he said.

“If you give that up, you’re just quitting on yourself,” he said.

—  John Wright