Jacob (photo: Utica Observer-Dispatch)
The Obama administration has intervened on behalf of an openly homosexual teenager in a bullying lawsuit against his high school – and the Justice Department is claiming a law meant to ban sex discrimination also protects homosexual students from intolerance based on sexual orientation.
Jacob, 14, former student of Gregory B. Jarvis Junior/Senior High School in the Mohawk Central School District in New York, claims he was teased and endured threats and name-calling by classmates because he dyed his hair blue and pink and wears make-up and nail polish. According to the Justice Department’s Jan. 14 motion to intervene, Jacob “engages in physical expressions that are stereotypically female, e.g., swinging his hips and singing in a high pitched voice.”
The original lawsuit, filed by the New York Civil Liberties Union, or NYCLU, in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York in August 2009, states that students told Jacob to “get a sex-change operation because he was so ‘girly.’” The teen claims students destroyed his belongings, threw his clothes in a trash can, tripped him and pushed him down stairs. According to the documents, the school principal promised to look into the harassment, but never told the boy or his father whether he had taken steps to investigate and respond to the incidents.
“The harassment culminated on June 5, 2009, when a student, who had been named numerous times in reports [to the principal], threatened to kill [Jacob.]. The student brought a knife to school, showed it to [Jacob] during class, and threatened to stab [Jacob] and string his ‘f—ot a–’ up from the flagpole,” NYCLU’s complaint states. “[Jacob], afraid for his life, left the school and went home.”
His lawsuit names the Mohawk Central School District; Joyce Caputo, superintendent of schools; Edward Rinaldo, the school’s principal; and Cynthia Stocker, the district’s equal opportunity compliance officer as defendants. It claims school officials were deliberately indifferent to the harassment and didn’t do enough to stop the bullying. The principal offered a “safe room” and suggested Jacob’s parents home-school him to keep him out of harm’s way. The father and the principal agreed to remove Jacob from the school to protect him. Just one week after the suit was filed, the district said it would take immediate action to ensure Jacob’s safety when classes resumed.
“While the district cannot comment on the details of a pending lawsuit, our staff and administration are committed to doing everything in their power to prevent bullying and promote tolerance,” Caputo said in a statement. “We live in both a state and a nation that are becoming increasingly diverse. Our school leadership is open to new ideas and recommendations on how it can take a more proactive role in teaching respect and appreciation for that diversity.”
Caputo noted that the district has conducted staff-development programs on the topic and implemented new anti-bullying programs in the last year.
Meanwhile, the mother of a boy accused of harassing Jacob claims her son faced a six-month suspension, but she said her son has been harassed by Jacob and is not a bully.
“[Jacob] told my son that he loves him, that they should go out and that he wished my son’s family dead,” Tamara Hendrick said. “They had a few verbal altercations last year, and my son was punched in the face by [Jacob].”
In its case supporting Jacob, the Obama administration lawyers argue that that safeguards against sex discrimination in the Title IX amendment to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 also apply to gender stereotypes. A judge will decide whether to accept or deny the Justice Department’s motion to intervene.
Gregory B. Jarvis Junior/Senior High School (photo: WKTV-2)
Title IX states, “no person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance …”
National Public Radio reports that homosexual groups see Obama administration intervention as a bold statement about the administration’s priorities.
Roger Clegg of the Center for Equal Opportunity worked in the Civil Rights Division under President Reagan and President George H.W. Bush. While he firmly condemns bullying and harassment of students, he told NPR the Obama administration’s interpretation of federal law is flawed in this case.
“They are making up a legal violation where there hasn’t been one,” Clegg said. “If the Civil Rights Division and the Obama administration want to propose that Title IX be amended to include sexual orientation, that’s something they can do and that can be debated in Congress. But Congress has not passed a law that deals with discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.”
A NYCLU lawyer told the Wellsville Daily Reporter that federal intervention in the case could lead to a broader interpretation of the law if it is applied to the harassment of homosexual students.
The Justice Department’s legal filing states the government is intervening to guarantee “district-wide relief for all district students” in the future.
“I think the weight of the federal government concern will be enormously helpful in ensuring the problems raised in this case are adequately addressed,” Donna Lieberman, executive director of the NYCLU, told the Wellsville Daily Reporter. “The Justice Department deeply cares about the right of all children to go to school in a safe environment.”
She said President Obama’s administration is now willing to intervene in cases federal lawyers were not previously concerned with prior to the 2008 election.
“There should be nothing political about a case like this,” she said. “That said, we didn’t get a whole lot of help on this issue in the previous administration.”