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Suit filed after boy punished for talking about homosexuality

By The Associated Press

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — A 14-year-old boy who says he is gay claims teachers forced him to read the Bible and disciplined him for talking about sexual orientation.

Thomas McLaughlin's mother filed a lawsuit yesterday in federal court, accusing the Pulaski County School District of infringing on her son's freedom of speech when it punished him for talking about homosexuality.

Delia McLaughlin filed the suit on behalf of her son, herself and her husband against the district and teachers and administrators at Jacksonville Junior High School, where Thomas is a ninth-grader.

"We tried to work with the district to reach a settlement that would protect Thomas McLaughlin's constitutional rights and allow him to be open about his sexual orientation," said James Esseks, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union's Lesbian and Gay Rights Project.

"They were offered ample opportunity to do the right thing here, but the district refused to meet our demands so we're taking them to court to ensure that other lesbian and gay students in the district wouldn't face similar discrimination," Esseks said.

The school district said last month in a letter to the ACLU that McLaughlin's discussions disrupted the learning process and that it was appropriate to discipline him. District officials declined comment on the lawsuit yesterday.

The ACLU, which is handling the case for the McLaughlins, wants the court to stop the school district from disciplining students for talking about sexual orientation during non-class time. They also want the district to adopt a policy that it won't violate the rights of lesbian and gay students and to clear McLaughlin's disciplinary record.

School district attorney Jay Bequette said yesterday he had not seen the lawsuit. In its March letter to the ACLU, the district denied accusations that it violated McLaughlin's rights.

"The district assures your clients that it will not intentionally violate the Constitution or state and federal laws in respect to its treatment of students," the district wrote.

McLaughlin said yesterday he was filing the suit because he wants himself and other gay students to be able to go to school without having to lie about their sexuality.

"I don't want to get in trouble for something that everybody talks about," McLaughlin said. "I don't want to be singled out because I'm gay."

The ACLU said that it worked with the school district through April 7 in an effort to resolve the matter, but negotiations came to an impasse that afternoon.

The lawsuit says 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.

"(A teacher) told me that I had better keep my mouth shut about my sexual orientation or I will end up getting beaten up," McLaughlin said in an affidavit. "On at least one occasion, she warned that I could end up like Matthew Shepard."

McLaughlin said the same teacher called him "abnormal" and "unnatural."

McLaughlin was forced to read aloud Bible verses and prayers in the assistant principal's office after he was asked if he was "saved" and was preached to about homosexuality, the affidavit read.

The school suspended McLaughlin for two days in February after he told classmates that he was upset when he was forced to read the Bible, the lawsuit stated.

"(They) told me that if I told any of my friends why I was suspended, I would automatically be recommended for expulsion," McLaughlin said in the affidavit.

McLaughlin is worried that he will face further discipline or expulsion if he continues to discuss his sexual orientation or any punishments stemming from it, the suit said. He said it had interfered with his school work, causing his grades to drop this term.

"You get school teachers and school administrators who think they can treat a child like this," said Rita Sklar, spokeswoman for the ACLU. "It creates an atmosphere of hate and prejudice."

A hearing date has not been set, although the plaintiffs are seeking one before school lets out for summer. The lawsuit names the school board, its superintendent, the principal, and two assistant principals at the junior high and four teachers.

McLaughlin said what the teachers did and said to him will always be in his mind. "It's always going to affect me," McLaughlin said. "I'm not ever going to forget about it. My rights were violated and it was wrong for the school to do that."

Gay student, school district settle free-speech lawsuit
Thomas McLaughlin, 14, claimed that teachers at Arkansas school had disciplined him for speaking about being gay. 07.18.03

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