A Nevada school district has approved a $451,000 settlement to a former student who claimed school officials ignored his pleas for help when other students beat and threatened him because he was gay.
Derek Henkle, now 21, filed a federal civil rights suit against the Washoe County school district in Reno, Nev., back in 2000.
The district settled the case out of court this week, agreeing to pay Henkle the monetary settlement, and to implement school policies designed to protect gay students and formally recognize their constitutional right to be open about their sexual orientation.
In the suit, Henkle contended that since he was 14, other high school students beat him up and threatened him, while school officials failed to protect him, investigate his claims of harassment, or punish the students who were responsible.
"The largest incident," Henkle said on Good Morning America, was when I was walking back from lunch and in the middle of my school parking lot, a group of six students surrounded me and pulled up a lasso and said 'let's string down the fag and drag him down the highway.' They got the lasso around my neck three times," he said.
After he broke free and hid inside the school, a teacher called the principal's office, saying she thought both he and she were in danger and to send help to the classroom as soon as possible. It took more than an hour for administrators to send help, and Henkle said he was later sent home on a school bus, where he feared the same bullies would attack him again.
A National Problem
The lawsuit was filed by lawyers for the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, a gay rights organization, and the national law firm of O'Melveny & Myers.
In May 2001, Human Rights Watch released a report entitled "Hatred in the Hallways," which found that gay teenagers were so often subject to bullying in public schools that they were not receiving an adequate education. The problem affected as many as 2 million school-age youth nationwide, the report said.
One of Henkle's attorneys, Peter Obstler, said that the settlement money, which Henkle will use for college, is not as important as the statement the settlement makes about gay student rights in public schools all over the country.
"The important thing is for schools to know that if they bash you and allow you to be bashed, they will pay," Obstler said. "Eighty-four percent of homosexual high school students report being harassed on a regular basis. Teachers and administrators all across America have a responsibility to protect all of their students."
The changes that the Wachoe School District made should be a model for the rest of the country, he said.
The 58,000-student district did not admit guilt in the matter, but it did agree to implement a series of policy changes intended to protect gay and lesbian students and allow them full freedom to express themselves on campus.
The Washoe County School District acknowledged Henkle "had some problems" in the three Reno high schools he attended, but a spokesman wouldn't confirm that he had been repeatedly harassed.
"When administrators became aware of [harassment] they acted quickly and appropriately including the suspension of some students," Steve Mulvenon told The Associated Press Wednesday.
When asked whether Henkle's life had been threatened at school, Mulvenon refused to answer.
"Our position on the whole issue is when children walk onto our property, they should find those places to be warm, welcoming and inviting," he said. "Schools ought to be safe havens for kids regardless of their sexual orientation, their race, their gender, their income."
Only seven states and the District of Columbia have enacted laws that explicitly prohibit harassment or discrimination of gay and lesbian students (Massachusetts, Vermont, Wisconsin, California, Connecticut, New Jersey and Minnesota). Virtually every public school in America, on the other hand, has a policy prohibiting race-based discrimination.
From School to School
After the lasso incident, Henkle transferred to a different school in Reno. Again, he was beaten by a group of guys in a school parking lot, he said. Two school security guards just watched, and did not intervene, Henkle said. One principal told him to "stop acting like a fag," Henkle said.
Henkle said his teachers allowed other students to call him "fag" and "homo" in the classroom, and he believes that this paved the way for the abuse to snowball into beatings.
"The climate that my administrators allowed to happen at the school was one, if you didn't harass me or you were my ally, you got harassed as well," Henkle said. "It became a popular thing to beat up on the gay kid. This happens every day in America's schools, he said.
All told, he transferred twice. At one point, a school official told him that sexual orientation was not a classroom issue, but a bedroom issue, and should stay at home.
Henkle said the abuse continued for two years until he was 16, when he left the public school system to seek a high school equivalency diploma at an adult learning center. Henkle felt that he was driven out of the district, after he had gone to every high school within it. He eventually earned his high school degree after moving away to Atlanta.
Henkle says he's not angry at the school district anymore and that he wants to put all of the violent incidents behind him. The most important part of his battle, says Henkle, was getting the message out to others who were dealing with the same abuse and harrasment in school.
The district released this statement, following the settlement:
"Our settlement with Mr. Henkle is in no way an admission of guilt or wrondoing by any of the parties named as defendants.The facts in this case are still very much in dispute. We believe our employees acted responsibly and professionally. In front of a jury we feel our witnesses would have been persuasive and that we likely would have won, but given the huge amounts of money at stake, it was a risk that we were unwilling to take."
In addition to paying Henkle, the district's new policy includes the following:
Acknowledge that students' freedom of expression specifically includes the right to discuss their sexual orientations.
Require student education about sexual harassment and intimidation.
Require staff training on how to respond to and prevent harassment.
Require that an anti-harassment policy be posted in all district buildings and be included in student handbooks.