Complaint by Gay Student Triggers Historic Civil Rights Agreement

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Fayetteville, Arkansas, schools must comply with Title IX
June 22, 1998

(NEW YORK, June 22, 1998) -- In an important step in combating harassment of lesbian and gay students nationwide, the federal government reached agreement with the Fayetteville Public Schools in Arkansas on broad civil rights protections in the schools, Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund said Tuesday. The "Commitment to Resolve," entered into by the federal government and the school system, remedies an administrative complaint brought by a Fayetteville student, William Wagner.

Lambda represented Wagner, now 17, and his parents, in a sex discrimination complaint to the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) of the United States Department of Education. The complaint is the first filed under Title IX on behalf of a harassed gay student.

In a letter dated June 17, 1998, Lambda learned that OCR had reached agreement with the Fayetteville Public Schools, calling for the district to "recognize the various forms of sexual harassment," including "sexual harassment directed at gay or lesbian students..." Under the agreement, the school district must overhaul its policies and procedures and train faculty, staff, and students with written reports of progress to the OCR until June 1999.

Throughout 1995 and 1996, several students harassed Wagner in grades eight to 10 at his Fayetteville, Arkansas, school; the harassment escalated to a gay bashing by a gang that broke Wagner's nose and bruised a kidney. Criminal charges resulted in probation for those students, but others at the school continued to sexually harass Wagner. After the school failed to address the on-going harassment, Wagner and his parents filed their OCR complaint in January 1997. The Wagners subsequently pulled William out of school in fear for his life.

Wagner's mother Carolyn welcomed the agreement. "My heart broke when my son was so terribly abused, just for being himself. A mother's dream for her children is that they be happy and healthy, and this includes being safe at school," she said, adding, "This agreement with Fayetteville Schools, hopefully, will safeguard many parents' dreams and protect their kids."

OCR enforces compliance with Title IX, a federal statute that prohibits sex discrimination, including sexual harassment. In March of 1997, OCR released new Title IX guidelines for schools which, for the first time, made explicit reference to "gay or lesbian students" as also being covered by federal prohibitions against sexual harassment.

"This is the first case in the nation under the new Title IX guidelines' explicit coverage of sexual harassment directed at gay students," said Lambda Staff Attorney David S. Buckel. "School principals who question whether sexual harassment of gay students is illegal will learn a big lesson from this breakthrough. And now, more lesbian and gay students may be able to finish high school," he said.

In recent months, Arkansas has been the site of several battles over lesbian and gay civil rights. In May, Carolyn Wagner helped a successful campaign for the Fayetteville city council to override a mayoral veto of the Human Dignity resolution, a law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in city hiring practices.

In March, Lambda began a challenge to the Arkansas sodomy statute prohibiting certain consensual sexual practices only when between same-sex couples, a law which stigmatizes and threatens all lesbians and gay men in the state.

Now celebrating its 25th anniversary, Lambda is the oldest and largest lesbian and gay legal organization, with its headquarters in New York and regional offices in Los Angeles, Chicago and Atlanta.

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Contact: Peg Byron 212-809-8585 x 230, 888-987-1984 pager; Joneil Adriano 212-809-8585 x 241


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