LITTLE ROCK, Ark. A gay teenager has reached a $25,000 settlement with his former school district over claims that school officials violated his freedom of speech when he was disciplined for talking about his sexual orientation.
Thomas McLaughlin, 14, said teachers at the school disciplined him for speaking about being gay. The lawsuit also claimed that he was preached to from the Bible and that the school had told his parents that he was gay.
"It's like it's been lifted," McLaughlin said yesterday. "I'm really glad that this is all over and that the ACLU is making the school treat gay students the way they should have been treated in the first place. No more students should have to go through what I did."
The American Civil Liberties Union filed the federal suit in April against the Pulaski County School District on behalf of McLaughlin, who attended Jacksonville Junior High School.
McLaughlin, who will be a high school freshman in the coming school year, won't be attending a school in Jacksonville. The McLaughlins have moved from Arkansas to Louisiana for reasons unrelated to the lawsuit, they said.
According to the agreement, the district will pay McLaughlin and his parents $25,000 in damages and attorney fees, write McLaughlin a letter of apology and clear his disciplinary record.
Superintendent Don Henderson said yesterday through his secretary that the suit was settled to everyone's satisfaction and that the district and its staff were moving on and putting the case behind them.
The settlement terms also require the school not to disclose any student's sexual orientation or punish students for talking about sexual orientation or discipline when they're not in class. The district also said it wouldn't preach to students or punish
students for talking, outside classes, about their sexual orientation or discipline they've received.
However, McLaughlin says that he doubts the settlement will cause reforms at his old school.
"I don't think they're going to change anything," he said. "But I would like to hope that they would."
His mother, Delia McLaughlin, says the settlement gives her peace of mind. If school officials' behavior doesn't change, she says, someone can say it is violating the terms.
"They're ordered to change," she said. "The settlement was that they would change and they agreed to it, so if they don't change it, somebody can step in there."
Rita Sklar, executive director of the ACLU's Arkansas chapter, says the group hopes other schools will learn from the suit.
"Public schools aren't above the Constitution, and they can't get away with silencing gay students and violating their rights," she said.
The school district's attorney, Jay Bequette of Little Rock, had argued that McLaughlin's free-speech rights were already protected under district policy.
Delia McLaughlin lent her name to the suit on behalf of herself, Thomas, and her husband. She sued the district and teachers and administrators at the junior high.
Before the suit was filed, the district wrote a letter to the ACLU saying that McLaughlin's discussions disrupted the learning process and arguing that it was appropriate to discipline him.
McLaughlin said he filed the suit because he wanted gay students to be able to go to school without having to lie about their sexuality.
The lawsuit said McLaughlin's teachers harassed him for being gay and likened his situation to that of Matthew Shepard, a young gay man from Wyoming beaten to death in 1998.