Federal Court Allows Lambda Legal to Proceed in Antigay Harassment Lawsuit Against Upstate New York School District

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"Today, our clients, Charlie Pratt and his sister Ashley Petranchuk, won their day in court."
March 29, 2011

"It's time for officials in the Indian River School District to live up to their responsibility to protect their students and to stop making up excuses to try to escape liability for their failures."

(Philadelphia, NY, March 29, 2011)—Today, the United States District Court for the Northern District of New York ruled that discrimination claims filed against Indian River Central School District by Lambda Legal and Kirkland & Ellis LLP, on behalf of Charlie Pratt, who suffered sexist and antigay harassment at school, will proceed.

"This is an important victory for our client Charlie Pratt, who for years was harassed by students and neglected by teachers in the Indian River School District because he is gay and because he did not conform to sexist stereotypes of masculinity," said Thomas W. Ude, Jr., Lambda Legal Senior Staff Attorney. "Today our clients Charlie Pratt and his sister, Ashley Petranchuk, won their day in court."

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.

Charlie Pratt endured many years of harassment while he was 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. The years of harassment and abuse ended for Charlie not because of the actions of any school official, but only after his parents withdrew him from school.

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 and Kirkland & Ellis LLP filed suit on their behalf did administrators permit students to form a GSA—but the GSA is still not treated equally to other clubs.

"For years, the school district and its officials and employees shirked their legal responsibility to Charlie, and failed to adequately 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 that the court has rejected their efforts to escape liability for their misconduct," said Ude. "The court agrees that school officials have a duty to respond to harassment of their students—whether that harassment is based on sex, sexist stereotypes, or sexual orientation—and that failure to act violates the law. It's time for officials in the Indian River School District to live up to their responsibility to protect their students and to stop making up excuses to try to escape liability for their failures."

After the lawsuit was filed, the school district and the other defendants filed a motion to dismiss and for summary judgment, setting forth myriad arguments. Today, the District Court denied the defendants' motion nearly in its entirety. The Court refused to dismiss any of the plaintiffs' federal claims, and its order allows nearly all of their claims under New York law to proceed. The Court's ruling clears the way for Lambda Legal and Kirkland & Ellis LLP to move forward on behalf of both plaintiffs.

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.

Read the ruling.

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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. The Firm is committed to providing legal services without charge to those who cannot afford counsel, with the goals of improving lives, bettering communities and deepening our professional experience. For more information, please visit www.kirkland.com.

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