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Hesperia school district discriminated against gay students, ACLU alleges

In a letter from the ACLU, the Hesperia Unified School District is accused of discriminating against gay and lesbian students, including refusing to allow girls to wear tuxedos to the prom.

March 19, 2013|By Howard Blume and Stephen Ceasar, Los Angeles Times
  • Kyle Bodda, 18, top, Levi Smithson-Johnston, 18, and Amber Stanford, 17, are members of Sultana High School 's Gay-Straight Alliance club. In a letter from the ACLU, the Hesperia Unified School District is accused of discriminating against gay and lesbian students, including refusing to allow girls to wear tuxedos to the upcoming prom.
Kyle Bodda, 18, top, Levi Smithson-Johnston, 18, and Amber Stanford, 17,… (Bethany Mollenkof, Los…)

A San Bernardino County school district allegedly discriminated against gay and lesbian students, including its apparent refusal to allow girls to wear tuxedos to the upcoming prom.

In a letter Monday from the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, the Hesperia Unified School District was notified that it faces legal action. The ACLU typically warns government agencies of impending litigation to give them time to make changes.

The letter makes specific allegations against the faculty and administration of Sultana High School. It recounts "persistent censorship" of activities and announcements by the Gay-Straight Alliance club.

"Indeed, the club's very name has typically been truncated from 'Gay-Straight Alliance' to 'GSA' when morning announcements are read over the intercom, with the words 'gay,' 'lesbian,' 'bisexual,' 'transgender' and 'queer' omitted entirely," the attorneys' letter reads.

One announcement was submitted as: "Do you identify as straight, lesbian, bisexual, gay, or are you questioning everything? Come join Sultana's Gay-Straight Alliance on Wednesdays at lunch in Room W-11. Join a group of students here on campus that support each other and want to make a difference for others." The announcement was allegedly broadcast instead as: "GSA meeting in W-11."

"The club's recently submitted announcements have, more often than not, simply not been broadcast at all," according to the ACLU letter.

The letter also accuses the school of allowing and failing to investigate discriminatory remarks by faculty and administration and pressuring the club's lesbian faculty advisor to leave, contributing to an atmosphere of hostility and bullying among students.

In a statement, interim Supt. David McLaughlin called the allegations "deeply concerning" but said that he could not comment on any specifics because he has not yet had an opportunity to thoroughly review the letter. McLaughlin will personally oversee the review of all policies and practices that "strive to ensure that all staff and students can attend school in a safe, welcoming and nurturing environment," the statement said.

Kyle Bodda, 18, a senior at Sultana, said school officials did nothing after he informed them of ongoing abuse by other students.

Recently, a classmate threw a football at him after he kissed his boyfriend at school. Bodda complained to the administration and said he was assured it wouldn't happen again — but the abuse continues, he said.

"I trusted them," he said. "It makes me feel less than human, unappreciated and unsafe."

The school intends to hold its prom at a Los Angeles hotel in April, and students not dressed in traditional gender-defined clothes won't be allowed on the bus to the event, according to the ACLU attorneys. A number of young women in the club want to wear tuxedos to the prom.

Levi Smithson-Johnston, an 18-year-old senior at Sultana, hopes to wear heels with his tuxedo but knows he will violate the dress code for boys if he does. The heels represent who he is and he feels comfortable wearing them, he said.

"I still plan on going," Smithson-Johnston said. "But it will sadden me that I can't express myself."

Such expressions are legally protected, the attorneys contend.

"They wish to dress in this manner — which some would consider gender non-conforming — both because they are most comfortable expressing themselves by doing so and to make a political statement to the school community about who they are," the ACLU letter states.

Attorneys from the Los Angeles and San Francisco offices of the firm Nixon Peabody are assisting the ACLU in representing the students.

howard.blume@latimes.com

stephen.ceasar@latimes.com

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