School denies any guilt but agrees to implement new policies incorporating protections based on sexual orientation, gender identity
SAN FRANCISCO — The Vallejo public school district has agreed to pay $25,000 and institute mandatory awareness training to settle a lesbian high school student’s claims that she was tormented by teachers and other staff members.
Rochelle Hamilton, 16, alleged that during her sophomore year at Jesse Bethel High School she was required to attend a group that was run by a counselor who asked gay students if they had chosen their sexual orientations and told them they would have a hard time finding jobs.
"I’m sure this counselor in her own mind probably had the best intentions in trying to talk students out of being gay," said Elizabeth Gill, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union who represented Rochelle. "The fact that this was going on in the school shows there was no understanding of the basics of state law."
The teenager, who now is a junior at another Vallejo high school, also claimed that different teachers repeatedly commented on her masculine appearance, chastised her for hugging her girlfriend and refused to let her into the girl’s locker room.
Jason Hodge, a spokesman for the Vallejo Unified School District, said the district’s investigation did not support Rochelle’s allegations and that no one at the high school was disciplined. Officials nonetheless agreed to settle the teen’s claim without acknowledging liability, agreeing their policies on preventing anti-gay discrimination could be strengthened, Hodge said.
"We did conduct multiple investigations, and we didn’t find that staff had acted inappropriately, necessarily," he said. "This was just a desire to bring closure to the matter."
As part of the settlement announced Monday, May 18, Vallejo Unified agreed to pay Rochelle $25,000 and adopt a policy prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity and to develop procedures for complaints. All teachers and students also will be trained to recognize anti-gay harassment.
"I feel great about the decision that it all came down to," Rochelle said. "It makes it safer for other students like me, so they can come out on campus without being harassed by teachers."
The girl’s mother, Cheri Hamilton, said she became aware of the problems her daughter was having at Bethel High when the girl was suspended for two weeks for getting into an argument with a teacher who ridiculed her by saying she did not know whether she was a boy or a girl.
Hamilton said she repeatedly went to school administrators with her complaints and transferred her daughter out in the middle of her sophomore year because her grades and attendance were slipping.