Vallejo High School Student Wins Anti-Gay Harassment Battle
The American Civil Liberties Union agreed on a settlement with Vallejo City Unified School District, on behalf of high school student Rochelle Hamilton, who faced anti-gay discrimination and harassment from some of the teachers and staff. Hamilton's participation in a school-sponsored 'counseling' group designed to discourage students from being lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender was also required.
The American Civil Liberties Union agreed on a settlement with Vallejo City Unified School District, on behalf of high school student Rochelle Hamilton, who faced anti-gay discrimination and harassment from some of the teachers and staff.
Hamilton's participation in a school-sponsored “counseling” group designed to discourage students from being lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender was also required. The settlement is configured to stop harassment and discrimination because of sexual orientation and gender identity at all schools in the district. Also included is district-wide anti-harassment training for faculty and students.
“All I ever wanted was to be able to go to school and just be myself. But I couldn’t do that when the people I was supposed to be learning from were judging me and telling me something was wrong with me. How was I supposed to learn when I was constantly scared?” Hamilton said. She came out as a lesbian at 13.
From the start, high school was relentless verbal harassment and discrimination from faculty due to her sexual orientation and gender expression. Hamilton entered Vallejo’s Jesse Bethel High School in the fall of 2007 as a sophomore. Seeing her daughter's depression and dropping grades Cheri Hamilton, Rochelle's mother, wrote letters, called, and met with officials in person for months before contacting the ACLU of Northern California.
While some of the problems were cause by other students, the majority of the harassment was from faculty. Reports of specifics include:
- A teacher approached Hamilton while she was hugging her girlfriend and said, “This is ungodly, and you’re going to hell. This is a sin.”
- Another teacher said, “What’s wrong with you? What are you, a man or a woman?”
- Other school staff made repeated harassing comments to Hamilton in front of her classmates, including saying, “it’s not right to be this way.”
- Hamilton was also on several occasions denied access to the girls’ locker room.
“California school districts are required by state law to protect students from harassment and discrimination, including on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity,” Elizabeth Gill, an ACLU-NC staff attorney who was involved in the settlement, explained. “If a school district ignores anti-gay bias in schools, it is plainly violating both state and federal law. These laws are designed, in part, to ensure that all students are able to learn and thrive free from bias. When it’s left unchecked, harassment can take a serious toll on students.”
One of Hamilton's incidents was a with a school counselor. The counselor required her attendance at a special weekly support group for gay students. The actual purpose of the group became clear when the counselor taunted students for “choosing” to be gay. The counselor then attempted to talk them into changing sexual orientations and gender expressions, and told the group that it is “hard to get a job if you’re gay.” When Hamilton’s mother confronted school officials regarding the “counseling” group, the counselor responded to Hamilton the following week saying “You’re going to get this treatment your whole life. What are you going to do, stand up every time?”
Jory Steele, the ALCU-NC's managing attorney explained “the district-wide anti-harassment training will make Vallejo schools a more welcoming place to learn for all students. District administrators made the right move in taking important steps to protect its students from bias.”
Hamilton transferred in the middle of her sophomore year to get away from the harassment of Jesse Bethel High School. She is currently finishing her junior year at a different high school in the district.
Pursuant to the five-year agreement with the ACLU, the district must uphold a clear policy explicitly prohibiting discrimination and harassment based on sexual orientation or gender identity, as required by California law; develop a specific procedure for any complaints of these incidents; provide mandatory training for all staff who may have student interaction in how to identify anti-gay harassment and discrimination, why it’s harmful, and how it can be prevented; and provide mandatory anti-harassment training to every students in the district, as well as take measures to make the district a welcoming environment for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students.