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Man Sues Over Anti-Gay Taunts

Los Angeles Times, November 27, 2001
http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-000094495nov27.story

Discrimination: Lawsuit against school district alleging daily torment could test new state law intended to protect homosexual students.

By Tipton Blish, Special To The Times

ONTARIO - A former high school student has filed a lawsuit against the Chaffey Joint Union High School District that could test a new state law designed to protect gay and lesbian students.

For two years, fellow students tormented Miles Thompson with anti-gay taunts, he alleges in his lawsuit. When he turned 16, someone scratched an anti-gay insult on the trunk of his car. He would skip math class at Montclair High School, where the taunts were especially vicious, and would ask to leave his English class early so "I could get a head start."

"It was every day, every class, even walking home," Thompson said.

"Who wants to go to school like that? I went to school to be tormented, and that is why I didn't want to go." Thompson, now 18, said he is not gay but vows to fight the kind of environment he said he found at Montclair High School, which he left after a year, and then at Alta Loma, another school in the district that he left midway through his junior year.

Thompson said that when he turned to his teachers and school counselors, he was told to shrug off the taunts. He was encouraged to leave Alta Loma High School and enroll in an alternative school, an approach that segregates gay students, his lawsuit claims.

"I was told, 'Just ignore them. Do your work and go home. That's your job - how hard can it be?' Well, it's real hard," Thompson said.

School district officials would not comment.

The case filed Nov. 15 in U.S. District Court in Riverside is based in part on an amendment to California law that added protections for sexual orientation and gender identity in state public schools. Backers of that amendment said a Visalia student filed a similar lawsuit in Fresno in January. It is pending.

Thompson graduated from Valley View High School, an adult education program. He said he enrolled there after he was forced out of Alta Loma High because of failing grades and missed classes.

The case is being watched closely by the American Civil Liberties Union to see how the new law will stand up in the courts. ACLU attorneys also hope the lawsuit will send a message to school district leaders who don't do enough to protect their students.

"Some school districts have been very proactive and have responded really promptly. Others haven't been proactive, and sometimes it takes a lawsuit to make it happen," said Martha Matthews, an ACLU attorney in Los Angeles.

The Chaffey high school district has a number of antidiscrimination policies in place, and they are enforced, Supt. Barry Cadwallader said. At the beginning of every year, school officials are trained to recognize harassment and enforce school policies, he said.

Cadwallader, who was a principal in the district for 14 years, said he had never heard the types of insults and taunts that Thompson says he endured. But "there are 20,000 students in our school district," he said.

"I have personally never heard it, but do I think it happens? . . . I make the same presumption you do."

Such insults are pervasive on school campuses across the country, said Jennifer Pizer, staff attorney at the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund.

"We have seen a plague of anti-gay violence in California schools," Pizer said. "Anti-gay slurs have become the insult of choice and their frequency - 25 times a day on average - makes it a drumbeat of hatred" for straight and gay students, she said.

California law, as of Jan. 1, 2000, holds school officials responsible for keeping their students safe from anti-gay taunting and
violence.

Thompson said one school official blamed him for having brought the taunts on himself.

Thompson's suit names 20 students as well as his two high school principals, his counselors and other school officials, but singles out the school district as the responsible party.

The lawsuit seeks to force the school district to implement training in diversity and tolerance training for its staff and teachers; to add assemblies for students on homophobia and harassment; to help students start clubs such as a gay-straight alliance; and to record the number of anti-gay harassment complaints made by students. Thompson also seeks unspecified compensatory and punitive damages.

Thompson has since enrolled in a nursing program in Los Angeles. He walked out of a class at Chaffey Community College when he saw former Alta Loma High School students who had teased him, he said.

"I was not given a fair chance to get an education," he said. "I had to take a secondary education. How many other kids are they doing this to?"




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