Reno school authorities agreed Tuesday to a wide-ranging settlement of a gay rights lawsuit, instituting a stringent anti-harassment policy and paying $451,000 to a gay youth who was driven from local schools.
The settlement is "the first in the country to recognize the constitutional right of gay and lesbian youth to be open about their sexual orientation in schools and to be protected from discrimination and harassment by other students," according to lawyers for the youth, Derek R. Henkle.
A spokesman for the Washoe County, Nev., School District, agreed, saying the district's new policy allows gay students to speak out and prohibits harassment that creates "an intimidating, hostile or offensive school environment."
The policy grants gays, as others, freedom of expression to take part in student activities, voice their opinions in school publications, enter election campaigns and participate in student clubs. It prohibits anyone from taking actions that "cause a substantial disruption of or material interference with school activities" or are "vulgar, lewd, obscene or plainly offensive."
The case could have a major influence on school districts across the country, according to USC law professor Erwin Chemerinsky.
"It is possible there have been unpublished settlements on gay rights between individual plaintiffs and school districts elsewhere in the country," Chemerinsky said. "But this is public, and that makes it more influential."
Henkle is due to hold a news conference in San Francisco today to detail his plans to use the money to pursue a college education.
Henkle was subjected to "a constant barrage of harassment, assaults, intimidation and discrimination" after he went on a public access television program to discuss being gay and his experience in the Reno schools, according to his lawsuit.
The lawsuit was filed by lawyers for the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, a gay rights organization, and the national law firm of O'Melveny & Myers.
In 1995, fellow students used disparaging epithets to describe Henkle. Several threatened to tie him to the back of a truck and drag him down a road. On the same occasion, he was lassoed around the neck three times with a rope on school grounds. When he managed to escape and call a vice principal for help, she delayed responding for two hours and then laughed at his recounting of the incident, according to the lawsuit.
In one class, the complaint said, students wrote epithets on the blackboard and drew pictures of men engaged in sexual activity while the teacher did nothing.
Henkle was transferred to two other high schools, where the harassment and physical abuse continued. Finally, the complaint said, an administrator placed Henkle in an adult education program at a community college at the age of 16.
According to the policy, Reno schools must:
* Acknowledge that students' freedom of expression includes the right to discuss their sexual orientation, and issues related to orientation, at school.
* Require regular student education about harassment and sexual harassment and intimidation.
* Require regular training of all staff regarding the prevention of and proper response to harassment and intimidation.
* Require posting of the policy and implementing regulations in all district buildings and in student handbooks.
The settlement rules out additional claims by both sides, and states that costs and fees amounting to $92,453 incurred by Henkle in his suit will be paid for out of the $451,000 he is receiving from the district.
Much of the legal work in the case was done pro bono, or for nothing except costs, lawyers said.