U.S. Department of Justice Files Brief in Support of Lambda Legal Case Against Upstate New York School District

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"It's time for officials in the Indian River School District to live up to their responsibility to protect their students instead of making up excuses."

Date

Date: 
08/18/2010
Thomas W. Ude, Jr.

"Although these same school officials still refuse to acknowledge their legal duty to protect their students, we are pleased to see that the Department of Justice knows better."

(Philadelphia, NY, August 18, 2010) — Last Friday, the U.S. Department of Justice filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of discrimination claims against Indian River Central School District in a federal lawsuit filed by Lambda Legal, with the assistance of Kirkland & Ellis LLP, on behalf of Charlie Pratt, who suffered sexist and antigay harassment at school.

"For years, our client Charlie Pratt was repeatedly harassed by other students in the Indian River School District because he is gay and because he did not conform to sexist stereotypes about masculinity. And for years, school officials and employees shirked their responsibility under the law to address the hostile education environment caused by that harassment. Although these same school officials still refuse to acknowledge their legal duty to protect their students, we are pleased to see that the Department of Justice knows better," said Thomas W. Ude Jr., Lambda Legal Senior Staff Attorney. "The Justice Department agrees that it would be absurd if a school district were to escape liability for its inaction because of school vacations and summer recess—unbelievably, that is what the Indian River School District argues. School officials' failure to act violates the law, even when the harassment continues from school to school and from year to year. It's time for officials in the Indian River School District to live up to their responsibility to protect their students instead of making up excuses."

On April 8, 2009, Lambda Legal and Kirkland & Ellis LLP filed a lawsuit representing former student Charlie Pratt and his sister, soon-to-be senior Ashley Petranchuk, in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York.

The suit describes the severe harassment that Charlie endured throughout his time as a student in the Indian River Central School District. Students attacked him relentlessly with antigay and sexist slurs, including names like "faggot," "sissy," "queer," and "fudgepacker," often in the presence of teachers and school employees who failed to intervene. Students also pushed him into walls and lockers, threatened him, threw food and other objects at him, spat on him, and vandalized his locker with antigay slurs. Staff members at the high school even joined the harassment by ridiculing Charlie with stereotypically effeminate gestures in front of other students.

As described in court papers, school officials including then-principal James Kettrick—now the District's superintendent—repeatedly failed and refused to take appropriate action. Left with no other options, Charlie's parents withdrew him from school for his own protection.

While Charlie was at the high school, the school repeatedly refused to allow students to form a Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA). Later, when Charlie's sister, Ashley Petranchuk, requested permission to start a GSA, she was turned down by the assistant principal and principal, who said that such a club would bother parents and students. She and her brother sought the assistance of Lambda Legal and only after Lambda Legal filed suit on their behalf did administrators permit students to form a GSA—but the GSA is still not treated equally to other clubs.

The Justice Department's amicus brief supports the arguments Lambda Legal has made throughout the case and addresses three of the school district's legal arguments. The Justice Department agrees with Lambda Legal that mistreatment based on a student's nonconformity with sex stereotypes can support a claim of sex discrimination in violation of Title IX and the Equal Protection Clause. The Justice Department also agrees that those who mistreat a student because he did not conform to sex stereotypes do not escape liability for that mistreatment if the student happens also to be gay. Lastly, the Justice Department points out the absurdity of the School District's claim that the District and its officials can never be liable for their failure to reasonably address a hostile education environment based on harassment if that harassment spanned different grades and schools or spanned school vacation breaks. After the lawsuit was filed, the School District and the other defendants filed a motion to dismiss and for summary judgment, setting forth various arguments, including the foregoing three arguments addressed by the Justice Department. The School District's motion remains pending.

Lambda Legal and Kirkland & Ellis LLP are pursuing claims on behalf of both plaintiffs. The lawsuit seeks damages for Charlie for violations of the federal Constitution's Equal Protection Clause and Free Speech Clause, as well as for violations of Title IX, the Federal Equal Access Act, and New York state antidiscrimination laws, and damages and other relief for Ashley for violation of the federal Constitution's Free Speech Clause, the Federal Equal Access Act, and New York state antidiscrimination laws.

The case is Charles Pratt and A.E.P. v. Indian River Central School District et al.

Thomas W. Ude, Jr., Senior Staff Attorney at Lambda Legal, is joined by Lambda Legal Deputy Legal Director Hayley Gorenberg, and pro bono co-counsel Vickie Reznik, Partner, and Adam T. Humann and Maura M. Klugman, Associates, of the New York offices of Kirkland & Ellis, LLP.

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Contact Info

Contact: Jonathan Adams 212-809-8585 ext 267; jadams@lambdalegal.org

Lambda Legal is a national organization committed to achieving full recognition of the civil rights of lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, transgender people and those with HIV through impact litigation, education and public policy work.

Kirkland & Ellis LLP is a law firm with approximately 1,500 lawyers representing global clients in complex litigation and dispute resolution/arbitration, corporate and tax, restructuring, and intellectual property and technology matters. The Firm has offices in New York, Chicago, Hong Kong, London, Los Angeles, Munich, Palo Alto, San Francisco, Shanghai and Washington, D.C. For more information, please visit www.kirkland.com.