Nabozny v. Podlesny
For four years Jamie Nabozny was subjected to relentless antigay verbal and physical abuse by fellow students at his public high school in Ashland, Wisconsin. Students urinated on him, pretended to rape him during class and when they found him alone kicked him so many times in the stomach that he required surgery. Although they knew of the abuse, school officials said at one point that Nabozny should expect it if he’s gay. Nabozny attempted suicide several times, dropped out of school and ultimately ran away. But he wanted to make sure that other students didn’t go through the same kind of nightmare. He sued his former school, but a trial court dismissed his lawsuit. Lambda Legal took over his case before a federal appeals court, which issued the first judicial opinion in the nation’s history finding that a public school could be held accountable for not stopping antigay abuse. The case went back to trial and a jury found the school officials liable for the harm they caused to Nabozny. The case then settled for close to $1 million.
Around the time of our work on this case, one of many studies of gay-identified students in public schools found them nearly seven times more likely to have been threatened or injured with a weapon at school and four times more likely to attempt suicide. After our victory, Lambda Legal launched a groundbreaking educational and litigation campaign in defense of youth that the National Education Association recognized with its Award for Creative Leadership in Civil Rights.
Lambda Legal's Impact
This historic victory was the first legal challenge to antigay violence in public schools. The 1996 precedent on appeal, followed by the million-dollar verdict and settlement, electrified the nation’s education community and led to an explosion in legal advocacy for LGBTQ youth.
- October 1995 Federal district judge rules that a school cannot be held liable for the actions of students and that no equal protection claim was presented by Nabozny’s case.
- December 1995 Lambda Legal takes on case for appeal and files opening brief with 7th Circuit Court of Appeals.
- July 1996 Victory! Precedent-setting federal appellate court decision spells out the constitutional obligation of public schools everywhere to protect gay students from antigay abuse and sends the case back to the lower court.
- November 1996 Small-town jury finds school officials liable for failing to stop antigay violence against Nabozny. Before jury returns to determine amount of damages, officials offer to settle with an award of nearly $1 million for Nabozny.