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In the first outcome of its kind in Pennsylvania, a school district will pay $312,000 to settle a student’s allegation that for five years school officials turned a blind eye to the harassment he endured by peers because he is gay. The settlement, stemming from a case in Titusville, Pa., also ranks as the second-largest award to a gay student in a civil rights claim against a school district to date, according to John Davidson, senior counsel at the Washington, D.C.-based Lambda Legal Defense Fund, which litigates gay rights cases nationally. Timothy Dahle, 18, alleged that he was so severely tormented because of his homosexuality that it caused him to become depressed and suicidal. After what he called repeated pleas for intervention were ignored, he sued the school for violations of equal protection under the 14th Amendment and Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. Dahle v. Titusville Area Sch. Dist., No. 00-174 (W.D. Pa.). As a federally funded entity, his complaint asserted, the school district had an affirmative duty to protect him from discrimination. According to Dahle’s lawyer, Erie, Pa.-based solo practitioner David Long, the settlement is a substantial amount for a civil rights claim. It is second to the verdict awarded Jamie Nabozny, the foremost victory by a homosexual student to date. In Nabozny v. Podlesny, No. 95 C 0086 (W.D. Wis.), a Wisconsin jury established a school’s monetary liability by awarding $900,000 to Nabozny for failing to shield him from discrimination. Long and his co-counsel, Michael Rosenfield, felt that a settlement was safer than risking the uncertainty of a Pennsylvania jury’s attitude toward homosexuality. The school’s attorney, James Marnen of Erie’s Knox McLaughlin Gornall & Sennett, said the school’s settlement was “a practical, financial decision” that arose from insurance considerations. Marnen denies that school officials were consciously indifferent and points to its anti-harassment policy. “But it had no grievance procedure,” countered Long. “You can’t argue lack of notice if you have no grievance procedure.” Davidson, of the Lambda Legal Defense Fund, said harassment claims based on sexual orientation are “relatively new.” Typically, sexual harassment claims have been brought by female students being harassed by male students, he said. Davidson added that school officials often apply a different standard to same-sex grievances. “To a gay student, they might say, ‘Take it like a man,’ or ‘Why didn’t you hit him back?’ — which they would not say to a girl.” Lambda is aware of about a dozen cases by gay students pending in various states, but the group estimates that there are potentially thousands more. Long suspects “there is one in every school district in the country.” But most cases go unreported, he said, because victims are too afraid to come forward. Both Davidson and Long expect more attorneys, particularly personal injury lawyers, will be taking on similar claims by gay students now that they realize they can succeed. Often, the lawyers said, there is documentation of the student’s grievances or altercations with peers, so it eases the burden of proving a school’s indifference. However, an attorney needs to be sensitive to the nuances of the civil rights issues, cautioned Davidson. For instance, schools that try to direct a student toward a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, could be violating his First Amendment right to be “out” about his homosexuality. In Dahle’s case, Long said he asserted claims under the Americans With Disabilities Act that raised red flags with gay rights advocates who misinterpreted his claim to mean that homosexuals are disabled. In fact, it pertained to Dahle’s becoming emotionally disturbed and educationally disadvantaged because the school failed to shield him. Lambda hopes the settlement will be a wake-up call to school districts and inspire other students like Dahle to come forward.

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