Freedom from threats, harassment
August 29, 2002
Washoe County schools are blazing a path to an anti-harassment policy for gay students, which would be commendable except for the turmoil required to get there.
As reported by the Los Angeles Times this week, the Washoe district settled a lawsuit with a student who was harassed, assaulted and eventually driven from Reno schools because he is gay.
The settlement, which includes $451,000, is being called the first in the country to recognize the rights of gay students and guarantee protection from other students.
In a just world, schools wouldn’t need such a policy. They would recognize and deal with harassment and intimidation no matter what form it took, protecting the students entrusted to their care and meting out punishment to those who deserve it.
But it was clear from allegations in the lawsuit Reno school officials failed miserably to uphold that trust.
According to the lawsuit, the youth, Derek Henkle, was threatened by fellow students and, on one occasion, lassoed around the neck three times with a rope on school grounds. When he escaped and called a vice principal for help, she delayed two hours in responding and then laughed at the incident, one of several described by Henkle.
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The incidents took place in 1995. We know now that it took the death of a gay University of Wyoming student three years later to bring national attention to the deadly potential behind such threats.
Many have argued against gay-rights legislation and policies on the basis that sexual orientation shouldn’t merit “special” protection from harassment and discrimination. In theory, it shouldn’t be necessary.
But when theory and reality collide, as they did in the case of one frightened student who couldn’t feel safe because of a hostile atmosphere in Reno schools, it’s not enough to simply hope people will act responsibly.
Nor will a new anti-discrimination policy be enough. Unless school officials take it seriously and enforce it, the policy will be nothing but an empty promise.
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