Hatcher v. DeSoto County Board of Education, et al.
Amber Hatcher, above, was punished by her school for taking a stand against antigay bullying. Visit Lambda Legal's Know Your Rights: Youth hub to learn more about your rights and make sure they're respected. (Photo: Tanya Downs)
In April 2012, Amber Hatcher made plans to observe National Day of Silence, a student-led day of action sponsored by Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network’s (GLSEN) in which thousands of students across the country remain silent to call attention to the silencing effect of anti-LGBT bullying and harassment in schools. She asked for permission from her principal nearly a month before the event and provided information from GLSEN and Lambda Legal that explained the observance and students’ legal right to participate. When the principal threatened Amber with “ramifications” if she participated, Amber appealed directly to the DeSoto County School Superintendent on April 10, 12 and 13. The superintendent refused to meet with her but directed the principal to tell Amber that her request was “disapproved” because allowing students to observe Day of Silence was not allowed. The principal repeatedly told Amber that she could not participate and threatened that there “would be consequences” if she did, even calling her parents and suggesting that they keep her home from school.
On April 19, 2012, Lambda Legal sent a letter to the principal and superintendent outlining the legal precedent supporting Amber’s right to observe National Day of Silence and putting them on notice that interference with students’ rights could be grounds for a lawsuit. The letter was ignored. Instead, the principal sent an email to all teachers telling them to send anyone that appeared to be participating in the event to the office. When Amber arrived at school wearing a red T-shirt with the message “DOS April 20, 2012: Shhhhh” and communicating by dry-erase board with peers and teachers, she was called to the dean’s office and suspended from school for the day.
On February 26, 2013, Lambda Legal filed a lawsuit against the DeSoto County Board of Education arguing that the high school violated the First Amendment and well-settled legal precedent supporting students’ free speech, and seeking a court order to ensure that school officials do not interfere with the rights of Amber and other DeSoto County High School students who plan to observe Day of Silence on April 19, 2013.
- March-April 2012 Amber Hatcher seeks permission to organize and attempts to participate in National Day of Silence but is punished is told she will be punished if she does.
- April 19, 2012 Lambda Legal sends a letter to DeSoto County Board of Education informing them that students have a First Amendment right to participate in National Day of Silence. but it is ignored.
- April 20, 2012 Amber attempts to participate in National Day of Silence by wearing a t-shirt that says “Shhhh…DOS 2012” and communicating non-verbally, but is pulled out of class and suspended.
- February 2013 Lambda Legal files federal lawsuit against DeSoto County Board of Education, including a request for a preliminary injunction, in order to ensure that Amber and her classmates can participate in National Day of Silence in 2013 and beyond.
- April 5, 2013 Victory! The United States District Court for the Middle District of Florida ruled that because the school district promised it would not interfere with Amber and other students rights to participate in the annual anti-bullying observance in support of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) students on April 19, 2013, an injunction was not necessary. Amber started a GSA and has organized and participated in Day of Silence for two years as a result of our ongoing lawsuit. Because the school district refuses to change their policies to ensure that students are able to participate in National Day of Silence, and other pro-LGBT speech or expunge Amber’s student records, the litigation continues.
- July 2014 Lawsuit resolved following the School Board’s decision to institute new policies that include sexual orientation and gender identity in its anti-harassment code and a new freedom of speech policy that is now in line with the First Amendment.
Nancy J. Faggianelli, of Carlton Fields in Tampa, Fla.