Lambda Legal Resolves Lawsuit Against DeSoto County Schools on Behalf of Lesbian Student

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July 23, 2014
"If school officials had any doubt before, it’s clear now: First Amendment rights apply to all students on every day of the year, and efforts to silence LGBT youth will not go unchallenged."

(Arcadia, FL Tuesday, July 23, 2014) – Today Lambda Legal announced the resolution of a lawsuit against DeSoto County School District brought by Amber Hatcher, an openly lesbian 17-year-old student who was punished for participating in an annual anti-bullying observance in support of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) students.

"Amber’s courage has ushered in a new era for her and other LGBT students at DeSoto County High School, and we couldn’t be happier. DeSoto County School District’s new policies will help to ensure that other students don’t face discrimination because of who they are or for standing up for what they believe in," said Beth Littrell, Lambda Legal Senior Attorney. "If school officials had any doubt before, it’s clear now: First Amendment rights apply to all students on every day of the year, and efforts to silence LGBT youth will not go unchallenged."

Today, a federal judge granted Lambda Legal’s motion to dismiss the case following the School Board’s decision to institute new policies,  that include sexual orientation and gender identity in its anti-harassment code and a new freedom of speech policy that is now in line with the First Amendment.  Furthermore, the school has agreed to expunge all references to the disciplinary action taken against Amber on the Day of Silence in 2012.  The settlement follows the 11th Circuit’s recent decision affirming the trial court’s refusal to dismiss the case against the high school principal, Shannon Fusco.  The federal appeals court rejected the principal’s argument that she shouldn’t be able to be found liable because she was following orders from the school superintendent.

In April 2012, Amber Hatcher made plans to observe National Day of Silence, a student-led day of action sponsored by the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN) in which thousands of students across the country remain silent to call attention to the silencing effect of anti-LGBT bullying and harassment in schools. She asked for permission from her principal, Mrs. Shannon Fusco, nearly a month before the event and provided information from GLSEN and Lambda Legal that explained the observance and students’ legal right to participate. When Principal Fusco threatened Amber with “ramifications” if she participated, Amber appealed directly to DeSoto County School Superintendent Adrian Cline on April 10th, 12th and 13th.  Superintendent Cline refused to meet with her but directed the principal to tell Amber that her request was “disapproved” because allowing students to observe Day of Silence was not allowed. Principal Fusco repeatedly told Amber that she could not participate and threatened that there “would be consequences” if she did, even calling her parents and suggesting that they keep her home from school.

On April 19, 2012, Lambda Legal sent a letter to Principal Fusco and Superintendant Cline outlining the legal precedent supporting Amber’s right to observe National Day of Silence and putting them on notice that interference with students’ rights could be grounds for a lawsuit. The letter was ignored.  Instead, the Principal sent an email to all teachers telling them to send anyone that appeared to be participating in the event to the office.  When Amber arrived at school wearing a red t-shirt with the message “DOS April 20, 2012: Shhhhh” and communicating by dry erase board with peers and teachers, she was called to the dean’s office and suspended from school for the day.

In February 2013, Lambda Legal filed a lawsuit that the Desoto County Board of Education violated the First Amendment and well-settled legal precedent supporting students’ free speech. Based on what happened in 2012 and because she was told again that she could not participate the following year, the Court issued an injunction prohibiting the school from further interference with Amber’s – and other students’ -- First Amendment rights and requiring the school to allow her to participate in this year’s Day of Silence.

"There are many LGBT kids in my school who have been bullied and harassed and who feel unsafe. I just wanted to stand up for all the kids in my school who don’t feel like they have a voice to stand up for themselves and to help ensure no other student was punished for standing up for their rights," said Amber Hatcher. "I feel proud that I took a stand which created positive change at my school and I hope now that other students will feel like they can stand up against bullying too."

Beth Littrell, Senior Attorney in Lambda Legal's Southern Regional Office is handling the case for Lambda Legal. She is joined by Lambda Legal co-counsel, Nancy J. Faggianelli, Christopher Sacco and Lauren Pizzo of Carlton Fields Jorden Burt in Tampa, FL.


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