ACLU Takes Up Arizona Case of Harassed Gay Teen

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Thursday June 10, 2010

A gay teen in Surprise, Arizona says that he has been harassed and his life threatened--at school, and in front of teachers who do nothing about it.

Caleb Laieski, 15, is an openly gay student at Willow Canyon High School, reports NBC News. The young man has been open about his sexuality since age 12, and he's stood up for his rights and those of other gay students before; two years ago, the teen created a group called Gays & Lesbians United Against Discrimination. Now he's pursuing his rights in a more direct and immediate way, responding to threats and bullying that have targeted him specifically. "There are a lot of teachers that when people say you're gay, or they call me a faggot, or even some death threats have been made to me in classroom," Laieski told the media. "I do see teachers, they hear it and everything, and they choose not to intervene."

Surprise, Arizona is a city of about 100,000 that is located in the greater Phoenix metropolitan area.

The Arizona branch of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has intervened in the case, with ACLU Arizona's legal director, Dan Pochoda, contacting the school district about the abuse Laieski has endured. Pochoda has also requested that the school district "ensure that all District bullying, anti-harassment and anti-discrimination policies specifically include actual or perceived sexual orientation and gender identity."

"We'd like to work this out in discussion, face to face discussion rather than litigation which we would do if necessary," Pochoda told the media.

"The Dysart District has policies in place that prohibit illegal discrimination and harassment as well as bullying," emailed the director of community relations for the Dysart Unified School District, Jim Dean. "These policies include reporting and complaint mechanisms for concerns to be raised and addressed." Among other resources, the school district maintains a hotline for students needing help.

But the anti-gay harassment continues despite those safeguards, says Laieski. A 2007 report by safe schools watchdog the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network found that over 85% of gay students in public schools have been subjected to anti-gay slurs from their fellow students--and some have heard such slurs from teachers and administrators, as well. Over half of GLBT students said they felt unsafe at school. The same research indicated that GLBT students were five times more likely than their heterosexual peers to skip school out of concern for their personal safety. .

"I'm not asking them to agree on my perspective. I'm asking for tolerance," Laieski told the media. His plea may not be in vain; Minnesota Democratic senator Al Franken has introduced a bill that would make anti-gay bullying in schools a federal offense.

Even when teachers, administrators, and other school employees are not actively involved in such harassment, all too often they do nothing to intervene when a student who is gay--or perceived as gay--is targeted for abuse by his peers, as happened to a gay freshman named Andy Berlin, according to a May 20 article in the Minneapolis-St. Paul newspaper the Star-Tribune.

"Well, it's not right, but it's high school. It's to be expected," was how Berlin characterized the response of his own high school when he reported the abuse he endured.

Such disinterested attitudes have been met with lawsuits in the past, in extreme cases, and school boards have had to pony up tens of thousands of dollars as a result, a diversion of critically needed funds away from the classroom. But no federal law currently exists that specifically protects young LGBTs. Franken's bill--the Student Non-Discrimination Act, SNDA--would correct that, adding LGBT youth to the demographics that are currently protected by law.

"Our nation's civil rights laws protect our children from bullying due to race, sex, religion, disability and national origin," noted Franken. "My proposal corrects a glaring injustice and extends these protections to our gay and lesbian students who need them just as badly."

In addition to criminalizing anti-gay harassment and violence at school, the bill provides penalties for schools that do nothing when its students are being bullied. Under the bill's provisions, standing by and doing nothing while GLBT kids are attacked will mean a loss of federal funds. The bill also forbids discrimination by the schools themselves.

Anti-bullying legislation has also been introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives, but another federal lawmaker from Minnesota, Rep. John Kline, is against the House bill. Kline invoked the argument used by anti-gay opponents to hate crimes protections, who claim that such protections would victimize people of faith by turning religiously based anti-gay comments into "thought crimes," even though anti-discrimination laws only punish actions, not opinions or beliefs.

"We should do what we can to prevent any student from being bullied," said Kline, going on to add, "But I have serious concerns about any bill that turns our educators into 'thought police' and opens the door to endless lawsuits and litigation against our schools."

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.