The First Federal Trial of a School District for Failure to Protect a Gay Student
Nabozny v. Podlesny – United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit
Jamie Nabozny, a young gay boy growing up in Wisconsin with his brother and parents, won a federal court judgment in 1996 for just under $1 million to be paid by the School District of Ashland (WI) for failing to protect him from bullying at school. According to the New York Times, this was “the first federal trial of a school district for failure to protect a gay student.”
When Jamie Nabozny was in seventh grade, he was just starting to realize he was gay and how difficult being yourself can be.
Classmates at the Ashland, Wisconsin, middle school near the shores of Lake Superior referred to him as “sissy,” “queer,” and “faggot.” Despite the fact that their remarks hurt, he always felt “there was nothing wrong with being gay.”
He did his best to ignore the taunts. His mother told him that almost everyone was teased about something. So he kept to himself and got good grades, making his parents proud since he was about to achieve what they hadn’t: graduate from high school.
However, over the following few years, the harsh comments became kicks and punches. He said that once, a group of boys surrounded him and pretend to rape him; another time, he was forced into a urinal and urinated on. Despite his complaints, his tormentors were never punished. His high school days became a daily fight for survival. He dropped out in 1993 after two suicide attempts and moved to Minneapolis on his own.
“He was only 17 when he left home,” Carol, his mother, said. “Letting him go was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do as a parent. But we had to do something because we knew we were going to lose this kid, either by him running away or by suicide.”
Mrs. Nabozny, her husband, Robert, and their son began fighting back last year “for gay youth everywhere,” according to Jamie Nabozny, a then 20-year-old who, until a few months before the NYT interview, on March 29, 1996, worked as an assistant store manager. He sued the Ashland school district and numerous administrators in federal court, alleging that they failed to protect him from years of anti-gay abuse and harassment, which frequently began the minute he walked onto the school bus and was greeted by fellow students with, “Good morning, faggot.”
In October 1995, the case was dismissed due to insufficient facts. The Naboznys, on the other hand, haven’t yet given up. Both parties appeared at the Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit on March 28, 1996, for oral arguments as Nabozny’s lawyers sought to have the lower court’s ruling reversed and the case sent back for trial.
Nabozny, dressed in a preppy tie and a buzz cut like the college student he wants to be, later remarked, “I finally got my day in court, and hopefully it’s not my last.”
Lawyers from the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, a nationwide LGBT legal organization, argued on Nabozny’s behalf.
According to one lawyer, David Buckel, the suit claims that Nabozny’s equal protection rights were violated. No one was ever disciplined for harassing Nabozny “during four years of hell,” according to Mr. Buckel, although a boy who slapped a girl was immediately suspended.
“We’re seeking to hold the school district accountable for making matters worse by not doing anything,” Mr. Buckel said. “After some point, they were sending a strong message that it was O.K. to beat up a gay student.”
The Ashland School District does not dispute Nabozny’s allegations of abuse, but claims that it is not accountable for the conduct of one student toward another under the constitution, and that the lower courts have previously agreed by dismissing the case.
“That’s not to say,” said district lawyer Timothy J. Yanacheck, “that the school district doesn’t feel a responsibility to protect all kids as much as possible and that’s exactly what the district feels it did in this case.”
Mr. Yanacheck stated that after Nabozny reported school administration that he was afraid to use the regular boy’s restrooms due to frequent abuse, he was allowed to use a restroom in the home economics classroom.
Mr. Yanacheck stated his class schedule was adjusted to avoid the bullies after Nabozny complained about being bullied in the hallways. When he reported to have been cursed and insulted on the school bus, he was moved to a seat directly behind the driver, not far from where the youngest children rode.
Nabozny and his parents had different memories of those days. His mother stated that she constantly called both the middle and high schools to complain about her son’s harassment and that practically nothing was done. Nabozny also stated that amenities such as the usage of a separate restroom made him feel like a prisoner in a protective custody unit, charged with being gay and unashamed.
Nabozny recalled being beaten by a group of boys in ninth grade, but he did not report the attack out of fear.
“There’s not much a school district can do if the incidents are not reported,” said Mr. Yanacheck, the district’s lawyer.
According to a brief submitted in support of Jamie Nabozny’s Federal appeal by the National Association of School Psychologists and other organizations, his reaction and fear are typical.
“Threats of violence against gay youth,” they wrote, “often escalate to actual violence, but the fear of retribution for reporting the violence often leaves it unaddressed.”
Ashland locals wrote Nabozny letters of outrage and sorrow about what he has gone through since he filed his lawsuit. At the time, he said that even if his appeal was denied, the letters alone were a victory.
He never finished high school. Instead, he earned his equivalency diploma, just like his parents, who saw one of their kids, Corey, graduate from Ashland High School last year. Travis, 17, will also be graduating from there.
Nabozny also sued for unspecified damages and the right to participate in an Ashland High School graduation ceremony.
“I was robbed of the chance to graduate by my school because they didn’t respond to the harassment,” he added. “I want that chance back.”
The case of Nabozny was remanded for trial. The appellate court permitted the lawsuit to go forward, basing its ruling on the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution. The school was then judged liable for Nabozny’s injuries by a jury.
In November 1996, an out-of-court settlement was reached in which Nabozny received $962,000. The court’s decision made it clear that administrators in public schools may be liable for financial penalties if they fail to protect homosexual students.
The movie about the case
Nabozny’s story is featured in a documentary film and teaching kit produced by the Southern Poverty Law Center. “Bullied: A Student, a School, and a Case That Made History” and its related materials have been distributed to schools across the United States.
Nabozny has provided written testimony to Congress and lobbied lawmakers on the issue of school safety for LGBTQ youth. The Equality Forum honored him with its 1997 National Role Model Award for his pioneering efforts.
Nabozny currently lives in Minneapolis. He travels the country sharing his story and emphasizing the importance of safe schools with diverse audiences.