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Students File Lawsuit Over Anti-Gay Harassment and Win Access to a GSA

Indian River, NY
 
In early April, a brother and sister filed a federal lawsuit against Indian River Central School District alleging that the district ignored harassment of the brother and denied them both the right to form a gay-straight alliance (GSA). A week after the lawsuit was filed, the district allowed the sister, who is a sophomore, to form the GSA.   
 
The siblings are five years apart and their lawsuit describes an atmosphere of indifference toward the harassment and safety of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning (LGBTQ) students. The older brother, who is gay, remembers being called names, physically assaulted, and threatened before he dropped out of high school at 15. The school’s administrators “weren’t willing to do much. There wasn’t a whole lot of support behind me. I felt like I didn’t really belong there,” he said. He also claims to have tried to start a GSA, as his sister recently did, and met with the same refusals. According to the young man, “They told us no because they said it would make parents mad. I was disgusted at that answer. It didn't make any sense to me.”[1]   
 
The lawsuit names the former principal (who is now the superintendent), current principal, assistant principal, former assistant principal, and three cafeteria monitors as defendants, alleging that they were aware of the harassment, but did little to help.[2]
 
Remembering her brother’s tribulations, the younger sister entered the high school with hopes of starting a GSA and building awareness for a new generation of students. When she received the same answer as her brother, the pair contacted Lambda Legal, a national organization that defends the rights of the LGBT community.  In addition to filing the anti-gay bias lawsuit, the organization sent the district a letter stating that if the school did not allow the GSA to form, it would seek an injunction that would compel the school to do so.[3] (Courts across the country have ruled that under the federal Equal Access Act, public schools cannot prevent a student group from forming based on its subject matter.)  
 
Indian River Central School District officials quickly complied with the sister’s request to form the GSA, but disputed the allegations. According to the school’s lawyer, she was never denied the right to form the club but was told she needed a faculty advisor in order to form it. Since Lambda Legal’s involvement, the district recruited such an advisor. The school also claims it takes part in many LGBT inclusive programs.[4]
 
The district is also defending itself against the claim that it ignored the mistreatment of the older brother. “We categorically and unequivocally reject any accusation which you have made regarding bias or unfair treatment of any student at the district,” wrote the school’s lawyer in a response to Lambda Legal.[5]
 
While the bias case has yet to be resolved, the siblings are excited about the approval of the GSA. “It’s been a long time and it’s finally happened,” said the sister. A spokesperson for Lambda Legal continued “The school district righted some of its wrongs, but we’re going to continue to pursue the other claims in the case.” Discussion with the courts and both parties about the specific allegations and damages in the lawsuit are still in the works. SIECUS will continue to monitor the situation.


[1] Kelly L. Reynolds, “Gay-Straight club is a go at Indian River,” Watertown Daily Times, 17 April 2009, accessed on 6 May 2009, <http://www.watertowndailytimes.com/article/20090417/NEWS03/304179948 >
[2] Kelly L. Reynolds, “Indian River Sued,” Watertown Daily Times, 9 April 2009, accessed on 6 May 2009, <http://www.watertowndailytimes.com/article/20090409/NEWS03/304099962/-1/NEWS>
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.

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