Lesbian teacher pursues harassment case in appellate court

SAN DIEGO - The whispers started soon after she arrived at Oceanside High School in 1983. But the real problems began 10 years later, after biology teacher Dawn Murray says she was denied a promotion to director of student activities.

Ugly rumors circled her because she is lesbian, she says.

She was accused of having sexual encounters with another teacher on campus during school hours. Her classroom was vandalized. Though she had come out as gay to some colleagues, an unwelcome ''outing'' in front of staff opened her up to verbal attacks.

''I don't think just because someone is gay or lesbian they can be treated in the devastating matter that I was. It's just not right,'' Murray, 39, said softly.

Efforts to talk with district officials about the harassment led no where, she says. So Murray took them to court in 1996. But a trial court dismissed the lawsuit, ruling that California law prohibits sexual orientation discrimination based on issues of hiring, firing or promotion - not harassment.

An appellate court, however, agreed to consider the case, making it the first claim of anti-gay harassment of a teacher to reach the appellate level in California.

Her lawyer, Myron Dean Quon of the Lamda Legal Defense and Education Fund, argued Monday in San Diego that such harassment was grounds for a discrimination claim under state law even prior to 1999, when lawmakers enacted a bill to add sexual orientation to a list of characteristics - such as race, gender, and religion - that are protected by the Fair Employment and Housing Act.

The lawyer for Oceanside Unified School District, Daniel Shinoff, argued that the amendment was needed precisely because sexual orientation had not been protected previously.

The three justices on the Fourth District Court of Appeal have 90 days to reach a decision.

Murray, who grew up on a farm in New York state, said she would have preferred to keep the issue out of court but had to stand up for herself for the sake of her students.

And throughout it all she has continued her five classes at Oceanside, even though as the only openly gay member of the school's more than 100 teachers she said she has had to do so in an ''extremely difficult'' environment.

''I chose to continue to teach throughout this battle because I didn't want the kids to see what harassment can do,'' she said Monday outside the courtroom. ''I didn't want the district administration to model running teachers out of classrooms and showing them that you can harass and discriminate against someone because they're gay.

''We're there to teach students. They learn from our actions.''

The district declined to comment on Murray's allegations but district spokeswoman Cindy Sabato, however, was willing to praise Murray.

''I will be glad to say we feel that Dawn is an outstanding teacher and the issues she has with some of the staff members have no reflection on her ability to teach and work with students,'' Sabato said Tuesday.

Murray, who said the ''glass ceiling'' for her within the district ''is in the basement,'' has won numerous fellowships, including the Woodrow Wilson fellowship at Princeton, for building a strong curriculum. In 1995, she was named an outstanding biology teacher of the year by the National Association of Biology Teachers.

In pursuing her lawsuit, Murray said she hopes the district will change its behavior ''and maybe treat people with a little more respect and dignity.''

Despite the recent passage of Proposition 22, which effectively bans recognition of same-sex marriages, Murray believes attitudes about gays and lesbians can change.

''I think we all need to just work together and talk,'' she said. ''I think with just a little more time and education, people will see that they don't need to be fearful.''


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