Groundbreaking Legal Settlement is First to Recognize Constitutional Right of Gay and Lesbian Students to be Out at School & Protected From Harassment

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Settlement in gay student's lawsuit against Reno school district mandates sweeping policy changes to end discrimination and harassment in schools; former student receives $451,000.
August 28, 2002

(San Francisco, Wednesday, August 28, 2002) -A gay student who sued high school administrators in Reno, Nevada, for failing to stop anti-gay harassment today signed a settlement agreement that ends the lawsuit and offers broad new protections that will impact gay and lesbian students nationwide. The agreement is the first in the country to recognize the constitutional right of gay and lesbian youth to be open about their sexual orientation in schools and to be protected from discrimination and harassment by other students.

As a result of the settlement in Henkle v. Gregory, Derek Henkle will be paid $451,000 in damages, the largest pre-trial award of its kind in the nation. In addition, the Washoe County School District will immediately implement sweeping new policies to protect gay and lesbian students from discrimination, including training all staff on preventing and responding to sexual harassment and intimidation. Henkle, who endured years of anti-gay verbal and physical abuse in Reno high schools, was represented jointly by Lambda Legal Defense & Education Fund and the law firm of O'Melveny & Myers LLP.

"The settlement achieves all the objectives of this lawsuit," according to Peter Obstler, a senior counsel with O'Melveny & Myers, who acted as lead trial counsel in this case. "First, the monetary award will go a long way toward helping Derek recover from the years of harassment he suffered in high school. Second, the settlement fundamentally changes the way that this school district will protect its students from harassment in the future. And third, the settlement sends a message to the nation's schools that the harassment of gay and lesbian students will not be tolerated and that the failure to respond to that harassment has serious financial consequences for school districts. Simply put, ‘If you bash, you pay.’”

“Today's settlement tells schools across the country that they must allow gay students to be fully out and must protect them from discrimination," said Jon Davidson, senior counsel in Lambda Legal's western regional office. "Lesbian and gay students are coming out at younger ages. This settlement provides the first real blueprint for how schools can meet their legal obligations as this trend continues. We commend the Washoe Country School District for setting the example for how schools can deal with this evolving issue. This settlement raises the bar for other school districts nationwide in meeting their legal obligations and we hope other districts will follow Reno's example.”

"I’m signing this agreement today on behalf of the 84% of my peers who are assaulted daily while trying to go to school,” said Derek Henkle, now 21 and a resident of San Francisco. "This settlement will help make sure other students don't go through what I did in Reno. Gay and lesbian students face hostility from other students, and even from school staff, every day in schools across the country. I was deprived of my education because of this, but I’m pleased that this settlement will show other students that they can fight for their rights to be open and honest about who they are, to be protected from harassment and abuse, and as a result to have basic access to an education.”

Henkle was a victim of violence, bullying, and physical attacks at three different high schools in the Washoe County School District. At his first high school, he was called names, shoved against lockers and spit on. A group of boys even threw a lasso around Henkle’s neck and threatened to drag him behind their pick-up truck. He escaped, only to have a teacher laugh at him for being so upset. He was transferred to a school for students with behavioral or academic problems where the principal warned Henkle against “acting like a fag.” After Henkle was transferred to yet a third high school, the harassment continued and school police officers stood by while a student repeatedly punched Henkle in the face. He was finally forced to enroll in adult education classes where a high school diploma was impossible to obtain.

The $451,000 being paid to Henkle by the school district will allow him to continue his education. Henkle who had been in a program for "gifted and talented" students was forced to abandon his high school education. As part of the settlement agreement, the school district has placed a letter in Henkle's academic file that recognizes that the harassment and violence he suffered affected his academic performance. This letter will be critical to his being able to gain admission to college. Henkle also plans to use a portion of the settlement money to fund an educational project that will empower lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered youth to address harassment and violence.

Policy Changes

In addition to the financial compensation to Henkle, the Washoe Country School District agreed in the settlement to sweeping new school board policies and actions that, among other things:

  • Expressly acknowledge that students’ freedom of expression specifically includes the right to discuss their sexual orientation and issues related to sexual orientation at school;
  • Require regular student education about harassment and sexual harassment and intimidation;
  • Require regular training of all staff regarding the prevention of and proper response to harassment, sexual harassment and intimidation of students; and
  • Require posting of the policy and implementing regulations in all district buildings and include it in student handbooks given annually to families

The Washoe County School District operates 86 schools spread over a county larger than the state of Delaware and has enrollment of more than 58,000 students who will be protected by this settlement.

The Henkle settlement follows several other lawsuits against schools that have settled in recent years. In 1996, the trial of Lambda Legal's landmark case Nabozny v. Podlesny resulted in a jury finding Wisconsin schools officials liable for not protecting Nabozny.

The case is Henkle v. Gregory in United States District Court, District of Nevada. The Henkle litigation team was comprised of Jon Davidson, senior counsel at Lambda Legal, and Michael Tubac, Peter Obstler and Luann Simmons, from the O'Melveny firm which acted as lead trial counsel. O'Melveny & Meyers represented Henkle pro bono in this case and contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars of legal services to Henkle's cause. In addition, O'Melveny and Lambda waived their right to recover attorneys’ fees so that a workable settlement could be achieved in the case.

For additional background on the lawsuit, see the policy changes, a resource directory on safe school issues, and www.omm.com.

Contact: In Los Angeles: Jon Davidson, 323/937-2728 ext. 228, 310/901-0386 (cell)
In San Francisco: Peter Obstler, 415/984-8825
In New York: Eric Ferrero, 212/809-8585 ext. 227; 888/987-1984 (pager)



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