Lambda Legal Urges New York High Court to Uphold Ruling on Law Protecting Public School Students

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"The Human Rights Law is far more specific and explicitly inclusive than other antidiscrimination laws, and it provides vital protections and remedies to all students, including LGBT youth."
March 8, 2012

"All students have a right to a safe learning environment free from discrimination and harassment."

(New York, March 8, 2012)—In a friend-of-the-court brief submitted today in the New York Court of Appeals, Lambda Legal urged the state's highest court to uphold a lower court ruling that the New York Human Rights Law (NYHRL) protects public school students against discrimination and harassment. 

"We urge the New York Court of Appeals to hold that the New York State Human Rights Law protects all public school students against discrimination and harassment in school," said Thomas W. Ude, Jr., Senior Staff Attorney at Lambda Legal. "Because the Human Rights Law is far more specific and explicitly inclusive than other antidiscrimination laws, it provides vital protections and remedies to all students, including LGBT youth." 

"All students have a right to a safe learning environment free from discrimination and harassment. The protections provided by the Human Rights Law apply to—and are needed by—all of New York's students, not just the ones who attend private school." added Ude. 

The appeal in the case that raised this issue, Ithaca City School District v. New York State Division of Human Rights, arises from a complaint by the mother of a young African-American girl who claimed that she suffered relentless racial harassment by other students while riding the public school bus to DeWitt Middle School. The girl's mother, Amelia Kearney, said she reported the incidents but was given little or no help, and claimed that the School District failed to protect her daughter from racial harassment. In defense against this claim, the Ithaca City School District not only contested the specific facts, but argued that the New York State Human Rights Law (NYHRL) provision that protect students against discrimination and harassment does not apply to public schools at all. 

Today, Lambda Legal, joined by eleven other civil rights organizations, filed a friend-of-the-court brief stressing the importance of the NYHRL's protections to public school students. Lambda Legal is joined by the following organizations as co-amici on this brief: Advocates for Children of New York, Inc., Anti-Defamation League, Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, Inc., Disability Advocates, Inc., Empire State Pride Agenda, Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, Ithaca Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Task Force, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc., New York City Gay and Lesbian Anti-Violence Project, Inc., New York Civil Liberties Union, and Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays.

Background

In October 2007, Lambda Legal sent a letter to the Ithaca City School District Board of Education highlighting the harms to LGBT students in their attack on the law, and the board unanimously ruled to rescind its legal challenge to NYHRL, allowing the case to proceed. In May 2009, after a public hearing, NY State Division of Human Rights found that the Ithaca City School District discriminated against Ms. Kearney's daughter by permitting her to be subjected to racial harassment, awarded monetary damages to Ms. Kearney and her daughter, and ordered injunctive relief. The school district challenged that finding, and a state Supreme Court judge ruled in October 2009 that that the NYHRL does not apply to public schools. The Division of Human Rights and Ms. Kearney each appealed that ruling to the Appellate Division Third Department, and Lambda Legal and many of the civil rights organizations listed below filed an amicus brief opposing the New York Supreme Court ruling. In June 2011, the Appellate Court held that the NYHRL protects students attending schools in public school districts, including Ithaca City School District, and confirmed the NY State Division's jurisdiction. After modifying the amount of damages awarded, the court confirmed all other aspects of the Division's determination in Ms. Kearney's favor. In November 2011, Ithaca City School District appealed to New York's highest court. 

The case is Ithaca City School District v. New York State Division of Human Rights.

Read the brief here.

Thomas W. Ude, Jr., Lambda Legal Senior Staff Attorney, and Hayley Gorenberg, Lambda Legal Deputy Legal Director are working on the case. 

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Contact Info

Jonathan Adams O: 212-809-8584 x 267 C: 646-752-3251; E: 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.

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