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In what plaintiffs’ attorneys call the first settlement in the country to recognize the constitutional right of gay students to be protected from harassment in public schools, a former Reno, Nev., student who sued school officials will receive $451,000. “Both sides realized it was an explosive case, but that we could have a win-win and send a message to other districts across the country to stop gay-bashing,” said Peter Obstler of the San Francisco office of O’Melveny & Myers, lead counsel for the student, Derek Henkle. Obstler worked pro bono with Jon Davidson of the Los Angeles office of Lambda Legal, which defends the rights of gay men and lesbians. The school district adopted new policies as part of the settlement, but Julie Underwood, general counsel for the National School Boards Association, said that she did not think the case or the policies were precedent-setting. At least 10 states have statutes barring discrimination based on sex or sexual orientation, she noted. The settlement was reached on Aug. 28 after 2 1/2 years in court. Henkle v. Gregory, No. CV-N-00-0050-RAM (USDC, D.Nev.). TROUBLES IN ’95 The suit was first filed in January 2000 against high school principal Ross Gregory and other principals, administrators and teachers in the Washoe County School District in Reno. Later, the district was included in the complaint. Henkle began high school in the fall of 1994. His problems began in the fall of 1995, after he appeared on a local cable TV show about gay high school students and their experiences. Henkle alleged that he was repeatedly harassed and assaulted by other students. When he complained to school officials, however, he alleged he was treated as if he was the problem and was told not to discuss his sexual orientation with others. Eventually Henkle was transferred to two other high schools in the district and when the problems persisted he was sent to an adult education program at a community college. In May 1997, at age 16, he dropped out of school because he was ineligible for a high school diploma and not old enough to take the GED exam. The suit claimed the school district violated Henkle’s federal constitutional rights to equal protection based both on sexual orientation as well as sex, and also violated his right to freedom of speech. In addition, the suit accused the district of violating several state laws. In May 2000, the complaint was amended to include claims under Title IX, the 1972 education amendment that prohibits discrimination based on sex by schools that receive federal funds. Henkle’s lawyers claim the damages award is the largest pretrial award in the nation in this kind of case. They pointed approvingly to the agreement, under which the school board agreed to adopt 18 policy changes aimed at protecting gay students and teaching other students and staff about the rights of gays, including the regular training of all staff regarding the prevention and proper response to harassment and intimidation of students. Henkle, now 21, will get money to continue his education, Obstler said, and the school district will have to protect gay students in the future. Obstler said the keys to the settlement were the inclusion of the Title IX complaint, the school district’s fear of having to pay large attorney fees if the case went ahead and the cooperation of the defense attorneys — Michael E. Malloy and Robert Cox, of Walther, Key, Maupin, Oats, Cox & LeGoy of Reno. Malloy said the case dragged on largely because of problems with the school district’s insurer, and added that “the school district stepped up to the plate and did what was appropriate for all students.” He said that if the case affects other districts around the country “that was not our purpose.”

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