MORGAN HILL, Calif. — In the halls of the local high school, the words "faggot" and "dyke" were routinely uttered, about as often, Alana Flores remembers, as "hello" and "goodbye."
Slurs were hissed at her in class, she says, scribbled on her locker and on pornographic death threats--including a picture of a bound and gagged woman with a slit throat.
Flores is 20 now, the high school harassment behind her but hardly forgotten. Together with five other former students of Live Oak High School in this half country, half suburban town south of San Jose, she is suing the Morgan Hill Unified School District, claiming that teachers and administrators ignored pervasive anti-gay abuse.
One of several such actions filed around the nation, the lawsuit represents the latest frontier in school harassment issues--a legal front that gained ground this week when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that school districts can be held liable in similar cases involving extensive sexual harassment of students by one another.
Emerging in the past five years, gay harassment suits and legislative efforts to ban discrimination in California schools are a reaction to a favorite, and at times remarkably ugly, form of student-on-student torment. As early as grade school, gay epithets and accusations of homosexuality are tossed with abandon at kids who are gay, thought to be gay or who are simply different or unpopular.
Anti-gay taunts are hardly new to schools. But by many accounts, campus gay-baiting and bashing are more pronounced than ever, the flip side of the increasing profile of gay youth and homosexuality in general and the emergence of gay student support groups.
"The more visibility and openness with which the issue is addressed in culture at large and the more support for young people, ironically the more attacks," said Beth Reis, principal researcher for a recent study of school-related anti-gay harassment across Washington state.
In an anonymous 1995 survey of Bay Area community college students conducted by a psychologist studying hate crimes, half the young men questioned admitted that they had engaged in anti-gay name calling, threats or physical violence.
"Harassment of young people, accusing them of being gay and lesbian whether or not they are, is much worse than ever," said Assemblywoman Sheila Kuehl (D-Santa Monica), who is sponsoring a bill--due for a vote next week--that would specifically ban discrimination against gay students, "I think it's the flavor of the moment to castigate people with."
California teenagers lobbying for her proposal say they have been spat on, beaten and constantly called "faggot" or "dyke" by their peers. One Fullerton teenager says she had her head shoved into a school toilet by a group of girls.
The study in which Reis was involved chronicled eight gang rapes of males and females in Washington.
In one of those cases, a school cheerleader told interviewers, she had been forced to watch while a lesbian friend who had kissed her at the high school prom was raped and urinated on by the cheerleader's boyfriend and his buddies. The alleged attack, never reported to school authorities, occurred in a storage building on school grounds.
In the Central Valley town of Manteca, the harassment followed 17-year-old Robert Ryan off campus.
He says a group of students knocked him down and kicked him repeatedly one day while he was walking home from school. His house has been egged and draped with toilet paper. In March, he says, he awakened and found the carcasses of a mutilated raccoon and a cat on his lawn and porch.
Two months ago, Ryan, founder of the Sierra High School gay-straight student group, quit school and took up independent studies at home.
"It wasn't worth it," he said. "The crap they put me through was not worth a high school education. There are people I miss a lot, but it's not worth going through that hell."
Ryan says he was too ashamed to report the kicking attack to authorities, and Sierra High officials say he didn't inform them of various campus incidents until more than a year after they occurred.
Abuse Dismissed as Teasing
When faculty or administrators are told of harassment or see it for themselves, the response is often inadequate, students and parents charge.
They say the harassment is ignored or dismissed as teasing, or the targets are admonished that if they are openly gay, they have to expect such treatment.
"It was distressing how many educators stood by in silence or actually participated," Reis said of episodes reported in the Washington survey, which was conducted by a group of public and private agencies called the Safe Schools Coalition.
Reis and others say that even the well-intentioned are sometimes afraid to address anti-gay bullying for fear they will be labeled gay themselves or accused by conservative parents of promoting homosexuality in schools.
In Morgan Hill, the school district roundly denies that it failed to take appropriate action.