NEWS CONFERENCE: THURSDAY, MARCH 18, 2 P.M. PST: Gay Teacher Wins Agreement That Bakersfield School Won't Discriminate

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California district apologizes for yanking 15 students from science teacher's class
March 18, 1999

(LOS ANGELES, March 18, 1999) -- Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund announced Thursday that client James Merrick had settled his sexual orientation discrimination case with a California school district. As part of the agreement, the district will apologize for removing 15 students from the award-winning teacher's science classes and will strengthen district non- discrimination policy.

The settlement will be discussed at a news conference with Merrick, Lambda, and the California Teachers Association, on Thursday, March 18, at 2 p.m.

Lambda and the California Teachers Association (CTA) reached the settlement on behalf of Merrick, after the state Labor Commissioner ruled earlier this month that his Bakersfield school district discriminated against him because of his sexual orientation.

Officials at the Rio Bravo-Greeley Union School District removed 15 of more than 100 students from Merrick's eighth-grade science classes simply because some parents did not want their children in a gay teacher's class. Merrick is a recent recipient of the Teacher of the Year Award from the Bakersfield Chamber of Commerce.

"It's a shame that the district's discriminatory actions came just as Merrick was preparing to end an exemplary teaching career. Faced with a devastating assault on his character, he had the courage to seek justice. The result was a historic case that creates good law for all of us," said Lambda Staff Attorney Myron Dean Quon.

"This settlement will be the blueprint for how all school districts in California must protect the rights of gay teachers. In addition, as part of the settlement, the district will not appeal the Labor Commissioner's decision," said CTA Staff Counsel Scott McVarish, noting, "This decision will stand as an important precedent for gay teachers and other gay employees throughout the state."

In the settlement, approved unanimously by the school district's five-member Board of Trustees, the school district agreed it would not remove students from any class for reasons relating to "the ethnicity, race, national origin, age, sex, actual or perceived sexual orientation, disability, or political or religious beliefs of the classroom teachers."

The school district also agreed to consult with a committee that includes Merrick to create an anti-discrimination program for improving staff understanding of district policy. "One of the primary goals of this program shall be to eliminate misunderstandings regarding sexual orientation," the settlement noted.

"The Board will, in writing, express support for Dr. Merrick as a teacher and regret comments and actions by some members of the public and staff that may have called into question his fitness to teach," the settlement said.

Although undercut by the district's earlier actions, Merrick remains dedicated to the teaching of science. He will return to work as a curriculum specialist, planning the new elementary school's life lab and pursuing curriculum development efforts outside the classroom. Merrick's previously scheduled June retirement will remain in effect.

Dr. Merrick said Thursday, "There is no room for bigotry in our public institutions. This agreement is a model for forging a community where all schools nurture tolerance and diversity."

Lambda Legal Director Beatrice Dohrn welcomed the agreement and noted, "It's sad that, having undermined Dr. Merrick's authority, the school cannot now 'unring the bell' and restore him to his previous position in the classroom. The kids have lost an award-winning science teacher to discrimination."

She added, "Fortunately, Dr. Merrick's efforts will help ensure that such discrimination does not happen again and he will be able to continue working to shape future lessons about both science and respect for others. This settlement is a fitting legacy for Dr. Merrick."

Lambda, the oldest and largest legal group defending the civil rights of lesbians, gay men, and people with HIV/AIDS, has a Western Regional Office in Los Angeles, a Midwest Regional Office in Chicago, a Southern Regional Office in Atlanta, and a National Headquarters in New York.

WHO: Dr. James Merrick, Lambda Staff Attorney Myron Dean Quon, and California Teachers Association Counsel Scott McVarish

WHAT: News conference on Merrick's sexual orientation discrimination settlement

WHERE: California Teachers Association, 641 H Street, Bakersfield, Phone: 805-395-0252

WHEN: Thursday, March 18, 2 p.m. PST

CONTACT: Myron Dean Quon 323-937-2728 x 225 or 213-324-5051 (pager); Lambda Public Education Director Peg Byron 212-809-8585 x 230 or 888-987-1984 (pager)


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