Days after Lambda Legal brought suit against a New York school district that both failed to stop relentless harassment of a gay student and refused to allow a gay-straight alliance, school officials have started to change course.
Days after Lambda Legal filed a lawsuit against the Indian River Central School District, school officials have taken a first step toward improving the climate for LGBT students by saying they will allow a gay-straight alliance to form.
Lambda Legal is representing Ashley Petranchuk, a current sophomore, and her older brother, Charlie Pratt, in the suit. Charlie endured years of antigay harassment at school. Students attacked him relentlessly with antigay and sexist slurs, including names like “faggot,” “sissy,” “queer” and “fudgepacker,” often in the presence of teachers who failed to intervene. Charlie was pushed into walls and lockers, and was spat on and threatened by his classmates. Even staff members joined in by ridiculing him with stereotypically effeminate gestures in front of other students. The school also refused to let Charlie form a student gay-straight alliance.
Charlie’s younger sister Ashley attempted to start a gay-straight alliance at the same school this fall, but she was turned down by both the assistant principal and principal, who said such a club would bother parents and students.
On April 8, Lambda Legal filed a lawsuit at the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York on behalf of Charlie and Ashley. Days later, the school district revealed that it would now allow Ashley to form the gay-straight alliance.
“After years of denying students like Ashley, her brother Charlie and others their right to form a GSA, Indian River is taking an important first step toward righting its wrongs,” said Lambda Legal attorney Michael Kavey. “Respecting students’ freedom to stand up for themselves and each other is a key part of creating a safe learning environment for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth and their allies.”
The discrimination suffered by Charlie Pratt was severe. Then-principal James Kettrick — now the district’s superintendent — refused to take appropriate action, and instead told Charlie and his parents that Charlie should “tone it down” to avoid harassment. Not only did Mr. Kettrick refuse Charlie’s mother’s request to train teachers to address antigay bullying, but he also failed to update the school’s written policies to match state antiharassment laws covering sexual orientation. Left with no other choice, Charlie’s parents withdrew him from school for his own protection.
While the district’s approval of a GSA addresses some aspects of the lawsuit, Lambda Legal will press forward with other claims, including claims for damages on behalf of both plaintiffs. The lawsuit seeks damages for Charlie for violations of the federal Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause and Free Speech Clause, as well as for violations of Title IX, the Federal Equal Access Act and New York state antidiscrimination laws.
On April 17, as part of GLSEN’s National Day of Silence, students everywhere took vows of silence to raise awareness about the harassment of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth and their allies. Lambda Legal has designed a FAQ sheet and several toolkits — Bending the Mold and Out, Safe & Respected — to empower LGBTQ students and their allies, both in their communities and at school.
The case is Charles Pratt and Ashley Petranchuk v. Indian River Central School District et al.