On January 14th, the U.S. Department of Justice filed a motion to intervene in a lawsuit against the Mohawk Central School District of New York for its failure to protect a gender non-conforming gay male student, who was the target of his classmates' ongoing verbal harassment and bullying for his gender expression.
Since last week, when NPR’s Ari Shapiro provided the first in-depth report of the news, media coverage of the DOJ’s momentous decision has rocketed, since the motion rests upon an exceptional, though not unprecedented, argument that Title IX’s gender discrimination protections apply to gender identity as well.
The student (Jacob) and his father originally brought suit against the District and officials at Jarvis Jr./Sr. High School in August 2009 with the help of the New York Civil Liberties Union. NPR reported some of the harassment Jacob routinely faced at school:
According to court papers, kids threw food at him and told him to get a sex change. One student pulled out a knife and threatened to string Jacob up the flagpole. A teacher allegedly told Jacob to “hate himself every day until he changed.”
While the original private suit was seeking monetary damages for the negligence of school officials, the Wellesville Daily Reporter noted, “The Justice Department’s legal filing states the government is entering the case against Mohawk to ensure ‘district-wide relief for all district students’ in the future.”
NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman told NBC Affiliate WKTV:
This means that there will be an independent assessment of the school district's commitment and procedures to ensure that every child who goes there, has a right to go there in a safe and nurturing environment, and it will ensure, I hope, that there is an end to homophobic bullying and harassment the school district has yet to get a handle on.
LGBT advocates are also hopeful that a federal court decision in Jacob’s favor will lead to a broader interpretation of Title IX in future cases of harassment based on gender non-conforming behavior or self-expression. The National Center for Transgender Equality applauded the DOJ's involvement in their announcement.
Superintendent of Schools Joyce Caputo issued a statement that, “While the district cannot comment on the details of a pending lawsuit, our staff and administration are committed to doing everything in their power to prevent bullying and promote tolerance.”
The full text of the DOJ’s motion to intervene can be found on the Main Justice website.
We will continue to keep you updated about media coverage related to these efforts to combat school bullying and harassment and to offer gender non-conforming people new access to legal protections.