Utah School System Sued for Abusive Policies toward Gay Students

Thursday, October 27, 2016
(photo: Dondi Tawatao. Getty Images)

By Jonny Bonner, Courthouse News Service


SALT LAKE CITY (CN) — Utah schools unconstitutionally subject homosexual students to harassment and bullying, censor their speech, violate their right to association and won't even let them mention gay issues in a positive way, parents claim in Federal Court.


Equality Utah and three families sued that Utah State Board of Education, the state superintendent of public instruction, and the Cache County, Weber and Jordan school district on Monday.


They say Utah "anti-gay school laws" and regulations "expressly prohibit speech that 'advocat[es] homosexuality' in public school classrooms and student clubs." (Brackets in complaint.)


They accuse the state of "facially targeting lesbian, gay, and bisexual persons for disparate treatment, by prohibiting positive student and teacher speech about 'homosexuality,' while permitting positive speech about the sexual orientation of heterosexual persons," and prohibit school clubs that support gay and lesbian students.


And in at least one case, the parents say, the state schools "refused to protect a gender nonconforming student from bullying and harassment."


Lead plaintiff Equality Utah is joined by three parents and their children in the lawsuit.


The student plaintiffs include a gay high school student who was bullied and prohibited from talking about his uncle's same-sex marriage at school, a lesbian student who was punished for holding hands with a girl, and a 7-year-old gender nonconforming student who was teased and beaten by his classmates.


"Even the parents of other students harassed John [Doe] and called him names," the complaint states. It continues: When John's mother was dropping him off for picture day early in the school year, she heard a group of parents saying that she was 'turning him into a faggot' by allowing John to wear dresses to school. His mother reported the incident to the principal, but he said that there was nothing he could do if she did not know the names of the parents and could not prove what they had said."


Other students held the boy's hand to a hot metal slide, giving him second-degree burns, his mother says.


James Doe, a high school student, was bullied, robbed and harassed at school, and when given a class assignment to write and discuss a family history, he was prohibited from talking about his uncle, who is married to another man. "(T)he teacher told James that if he wanted to do his report about his uncle, he would need to do the oral presentation after class, in a one-on-one presentation to the teacher with no other students present," according to the complaint.


This institutional discrimination fosters an environment "in which the very existence of LGBT students and teachers is treated as shameful and wrong and something that must be hidden and censored," the complaint states.


Equality Utah executive director Troy Williams said: "These are some of the last remaining anti-LGBT laws that are currently being enforced in the country, and they're especially odious, because they explicitly apply to school classes on every subject. These laws send a message that our lives are shameful and must be hidden and censored. They create a deadly culture of silence and non-acceptance, causing harms that can never fully be undone. The time has come to end the stigma and strike down this shameful law."


State and county officials could not immediately be reached for comment Tuesday.


The plaintiffs seek an injunction and punitive damages on 14 counts of civil rights violations, including violations of the First, Fifth and 14th Amendments, for students and teachers, and violations of equal access to education and of Title IX.


They are represented by Kathryn Kendell with National Center for Lesbian Rights of San Francisco, and Douglas Hallward-Driemeier with Ropes & Gray of Washington, D.C.


Equality Utah, founded in 2001 as Unity Utah, is a member of a group of state-based LGBT advocacy organizations, the Equality Federation.


To Learn More:

Gay High School Students in U.S. More Likely Than Their Straight Peers to Be Bullied, Assaulted and Raped (by Mike Stobbe, Associated Press)

Another Rough Day for Utah’s Marriage Laws: First Polygamy, Now Same-Sex (by Matt Bewig, AllGov)

Federal Judge Says Polygamy in Utah is Okay as Long You Don’t Have More than One Marriage License (by Noel Brinkerhoff and Danny Biederman, AllGov)


Lew Alessio 7 years ago
It is saddening to read the treatment of these students. I hope they become stronger in their battle for respect and equality, and that the school district and government become more aware of the damage they have done and are doing.

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