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ACLU sues Corona del Mar High School for cultivating 'homophobic' environment

March 19, 2009|Susannah Rosenblatt

More than a month after controversy erupted over Corona del Mar High School's reported cancellation -- then rescheduling -- of a production of "Rent," the American Civil Liberties Union sued school officials Wednesday for fostering a "sexist" and "homophobic" atmosphere.

While the complaint cites the show's brief cancellation as one example, much of it focuses on the aftermath of a Facebook video posted in January in which three Corona del Mar football players threatened to rape and kill a female classmate and used slurs to describe homosexuals. The video was posted on the online profile of a fourth student, who reportedly threatened the young woman at school. The video has since been removed.

School officials, according to the ACLU, did little to punish the boys or protect the young woman, even after her parents repeatedly expressed concerns about her safety.

"School and district officials, through their action and inaction, have not only failed to take steps to address this hostile environment, but they have contributed to it and given sanction to it," read the 36-page complaint filed in Orange County Superior Court.

The Newport-Mesa Unified School District was "attempting to resolve this matter" after the ACLU contacted officials last week, according to a district statement.

"These allegations are very serious and the district will utilize its best efforts to ascertain the truth of these matters, as well as to be sure there are procedures" to promptly resolve discrimination and harassment disputes, said district Supt. Jeffrey Hubbard.

Officials described the lawsuit as containing "numerous factual errors and mistakes."

The ACLU has seen a surge in calls from across the state complaining of school bullying based on sexual orientation after the passage of Proposition 8 last fall, which amended the state Constitution to ban gay marriage.

In the last decade, a number of lawsuits have been brought on behalf of gay students in California: Girls punished for kissing in a Garden Grove high school; students harassed near the Bay Area and intimidated in Los Angeles and San Diego counties; and others beaten, raped or spit on elsewhere, according to the Gay-Straight Alliance Network.

The ACLU complaint involving Corona del Mar alleges that the defendants -- the district, Hubbard, Principal Fal Asrani and Assistant Principal Duncan McCulloch -- chose to "ignore obvious signs of a school culture gone awry."

Two of the four boys involved in the video were suspended, said ACLU attorney Lori Rifkin. The girl changed her schedule to avoid the boys; her family is considering a restraining order against them.

When the incident happened, "we thought that there was an opportunity for everyone to achieve a positive outcome, even the boys and their families," said the girl's father. The Times is withholding his name to protect the anonymity of his daughter, a juvenile. "It just seems at every step of the way everybody has tried to sweep it under the carpet."

The Newport Beach school drew media attention last month when drama teacher Ron Martin accused Asrani of canceling the student production of "Rent" because of objections to gay characters in the musical. Asrani disputed that and allowed the show to proceed after reviewing the script.

Discrimination at the school violates federal and state equal protection provisions, the suit contends. The complaint also alleges that athletic coaches and students use homosexual slurs and that, according to one student, Asrani voiced opposition to gay marriage during an English class.

In addition to damages, the suit seeks a complaint filing process at school; diversity training for students and staff; designated staff contacts for harassed students; and a survey of attitudes toward sexual orientation.

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susannah.rosenblatt@ latimes.com

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