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Feds: school gay-bias suit is valid

TIMES STAFF WRITER
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The U.S. Department of Justice is trying to thwart Indian River Central School District's attempts to have an anti-gay-bias lawsuit against the district dismissed in federal court.


The Justice Department has filed motion in U.S. District Court to participate in the case as an "amicus curiae," or friend of the court, essentially volunteering to help the court decide whether federal discrimination claims by former student Charles P. Pratt should be upheld.


Mr. Pratt, who filed suit in April 2009, alleged he was harassed, called names, physically assaulted and threatened before he dropped out of Indian River High School when he was 15 years old. His sister, Ashley E. Petranchuk, is also a plaintiff in the case.


Mr. Pratt claims that district officials were aware of the problems but deliberately refused to help him. He also said any attempts by him to form a Gay-Straight Alliance at the high school were shot down by administrators.


His suit was brought through Lambda Legal, New York City, a national organization that defends the rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. The district has filed a motion to dismiss the action, which is where the Justice Department became involved, disagreeing with at least three main reasons the district believes the suit should be dismissed.


At issue are claims by Mr. Pratt that the district discriminated against him on the basis of sex in violation of Title IX of the federal Education Amendments Act of 1972 and the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.


The district argues that the claims should be dismissed because a claim of sex-based harassment cannot be based on nonconformity with sex stereotypes; an allegation of sexual orientation harassment precludes a claim based on such nonconformity; and harassment that spans classes, grades and schools cannot establish a hostile environment claim due to breaks in a student's education.


The Justice Department, citing case law, claims the district's arguments are incorrect. The department argues in court documents that multiple courts have "recognized that a sex stereotyping claim is legally cognizable under Title IX."


The department, again citing case law, also disagrees with the district's assertion that Mr. Pratt cannot claim harassment based on both sexual orientation and sex stereotyping. The department contends that courts that have dealt with similar claims have allowed "plaintiffs to prove that the alleged harassment was based on sex even when some of the allegations appear to be related to sexual orientation discrimination."


The department also takes issue with the district's contention that harassment against Mr. Pratt could not have been "pervasive and continuous" because of inherent breaks in school schedules, such as vacations.


The department argues that, using the district's logic, a student who misses school because of the psychological impact of the harassment could never establish a hostile environment claim. Similarly, summer and holiday breaks would also prevent a student from ever making a claim, an argument the Justice Department calls "nonsensical" in its motion. The department claims several courts have found that harassment is pervasive "precisely because it spans grades and schools."


The Justice Department wants the chance to address the district's arguments it contends are incorrect, which is why it has filed its motion to participate in the case. The decision on whether the department becomes involved in the case ultimately lies with the court. The district's motion to dismiss the case remains pending.


Within two weeks of the lawsuit being filed in 2009, the district agreed to allow Miss Petranchuk to form a Gay-Straight Alliance at Indian River. The district insisted that it never denied her request to form a club, telling her only that, like with all other clubs, she would need a faculty adviser to start it. The hurdle was cleared when the district recruited a faculty member to serve as adviser.

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