Thursday, June 28, 2007

Teacher Watch: LAUSD--Stand Up Now Against Harassment?

In 2005, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) settled a lawsuit brought by brave students at Washington Preparatory High School. The case alleged that school administrators, teachers, security guards and students harassed gays and lesbians on campus--creating, in effect, "a climate rife with hostility towards and discrimination against students and staff based on their actual or perceived sexual orientation."

The original complaint details patterns of unchecked namecalling--"faggot", "sissy fruitcake" and "sinner"--and alleges that students were told they were "wrong" and "unholy" and "not supposed to be like this." Some teachers allegedly threatened to "out" students to parents as punishment for perceived homosexuality. The principal was said to have refused investigating campus incidents where staff treated students poorly or differently if perceived to be gay or bisexual. You can download the entire original complaint here.

As part of the district response in the settlement, Deanne Neiman at LAUSD's Education Equity Compliance Office affirmed the district's effort to enhance protections she states are already in place: "It is important to acknowledge that the District has had a long-standing and pro-active commitment to protecting LGBT students from discrimination and harassment. Since 2001 and continuing to date, 216 Anti-Bias LGBT Trainings were conducted for school administrators and staff. At Washington Prep this settlement agreement augments the comprehensive training and activities already underway at the school and in the District as a whole."

I'm glad for this awareness check--long overdue--to protect students and staff who work in Los Angeles schools. LAUSD should be commended for stepping up. It is unclear whether there was any financial component to the settlement, although the original complaint did ask for unspecified damages.

But there's another story here.

Heterosexual harassment--let's say, male students against a female teacher?--remains uncomfortable to identify or interrogate because, well, we're "used to it." Everybody remembers Van Halen's "Hot for Teacher." It's kind of funny, perhaps inappropriate, but essentially harmless. Right? (Wink wink, nudge pinch.)

On a recent trip, I was standing in line for a Southwest flight and studying a deposition from Janis Adams v. LAUSD. Peering over my shoulder, an insurance salesman in a Hawaiian shirt asked what I was doing, and when I replied that I was studying a case of student-on-teacher sexual harassment--the first such case which has actually gone to trial--he paused, chuckled and said, "Doesn't that happen all the time?"

Adams's complaint was filed in 2000, approximately four years before the plaintiffs at Washington Prep filed their own demand for a jury trial. But during the seven years--seven!--of the Adams trial and subsequent appeals, LAUSD has become increasingly aggressive in its repeated claim of "lack of control" and "limited control" over bad behavior in the school environment. Such limits were apparently not asserted by LAUSD in response to Washington Prep students: Everything is under control, the "teaching moment" is in full force, we're watching out for you.

Even as it settled the LGBT matter, the district continued pursuing appeals and preparing for a new trial in the Adams case, seeking to affirm its "lack of control" in supporting teachers who want to say "no" to sexual harassment and defamation from students. LAUSD has now exceeded $1.2 million taxpayer dollars for legal costs.

The real story here is that this isn't big news.

LAUSD should take a cue from its better judgment in the Washington Prep case: when operating at taxpayer expense, it's wise to take some responsibility for the safety, sanity, and security concerns of the teachers we expect to protect students.

And as long as any school district fights to keep a blind eye to harassment or bullying of the heterosexual variety, whether against adults or students, LGBT students and staff shouldn't feel too sure of their protection, either.

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