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O.C. school district, ACLU settle suit over 'Rent'

Newport-Mesa Unified School District agrees to provide harassment and discrimination prevention training after students threatened a girl who appeared in the play and used slurs to describe another.

September 10, 2009|Seema Mehta

An Orange County school district where varsity athletes threatened to rape and kill the lead actress in a student production of the musical "Rent" has agreed to provide harassment and discrimination prevention training to Corona del Mar High School students, teachers and administrators and other district officials, according to a legal settlement announced Wednesday. The Newport-Mesa Unified School District will also apologize to the former student.

Because of the settlement, "no one else will have to go through what I went through," said Hail Ketchum, 17, the victim who, along with family members, identified herself for the first time on Wednesday. She is a freshman studying theater at Loyola Marymount University. "I hope the students at Corona del Mar High School will learn from my experience that it's possible to stand up for what is right and prevail."

The campus made headlines across the nation earlier this year when its principal canceled "Rent: School Edition" because of concerns about its content. It was later reinstated. Officials with the American Civil Liberties Union, who sued the district in March, said the controversy over the tale of struggling artists that includes gay characters and some with AIDS was just one example of official tolerance of misogyny and homophobia on campus.

The lawsuit alleged that in January, three football players posted a video on the Facebook profile of a fourth student in which they threatened Ketchum and used slurs to describe another classmate who they believed was gay. The video was viewed by 600 students before it was removed.

Ketchum's parents considered transferring their daughter to another school, but the then-senior decided she wanted to fight against the intolerance she saw on campus. They spoke with school and district officials over the following months, but educators allegedly did little to punish the athletes or protect Ketchum, and some officials reportedly retaliated against her.

Once the suit was filed, school officials ordered the athletes to stay away from Ketchum, threatened discipline if they approached her and assigned monitors to watch them at prom and graduation.

All this occurred as the controversy over the staging of "Rent" was flaring. After the show was allowed to proceed, students performed before packed houses while security roamed the halls and members of the Westboro Baptist Church (the Kansas church best known for celebrating at the funerals of American soldiers killed in Iraq) protested outside. Ketchum played Mimi, an exotic dancer with HIV.

Under the settlement agreement, the training will be led by the Anti-Defamation League and will include such topics as what constitutes discrimination and harassment and how students can be harmed. In the current school year, high school students and teachers will receive four hours of training; district managers, school-site administrators, principals and assistant principals will receive eight hours. The district will also survey students about harassment.

District officials, who admitted no wrongdoing in the settlement, declined to comment on the lawsuit allegations.

But district spokeswoman Laura Boss said: "We believe this training program will raise awareness for staff and students and will contribute to an overall positive environment at Corona del Mar High School."

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seema.mehta@latimes.com

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