When Skye Wyatt, 21, was a high school student in Kilgore, Texas, she had a secret: She was a lesbian, and she had a girlfriend. Only 16, she hadn’t come out to her mom. So it was all the more painful when her softball coaches, who found out about the relationship (and were disdainful of it), took care of that for her. But in a surprise twist, their breach of trust led Wyatt’s mother, Barbara Wyatt, to sue the school for violating the girl’s right to privacy — and on Monday, six years later, the school settled for $77,000. National experts in LGBT rights are calling it a rare and encouraging outcome, with lawyer Jennifer Doan deeming it a “positive story” at the end of what was, for her client, “a horrific experience.”
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“It sends a really important message,” Texas Civil Rights Project legal director Wayne Krause Yang, who also worked on the case, tells Yahoo Shine. “In this day and age, we have athletes coming out, and sexual orientation is front and center. Any school or entity that doesn’t educate its employees on privacy rights involving sexual orientation is opening itself up to danger.” He calls the outcome "a big victory."
The parties arrived at the settlement less than two weeks before a scheduled trial. In addition to making the payout, the Kilgore school district has agreed to hold annual staff trainings on discrimination issues.
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“The Kilgore ISD board believes that the actions of its employees were in all things lawful. … No new policies are going to be adopted," reads a statement issued by the school, and obtained by Yahoo Shine. It adds, "The plaintiff’s counsel in this case attempted to bully the board into changing its policies by threatening long, expensive and protracted litigation," and, “The Kilgore ISD Board of Trustees has no power to oppose the payment of settlement funds in this case, that matter being solely within the discretion of the insurance carrier. It is a business decision of the insurance company.”
While news of celebrities suing for defamation over gay claims is not unheard of, it’s less common to hear of such suits coming from outed students—mainly because a minor needs a parent or legal guardian to go to court. And, notes Paul Castillo, staff attorney with the national gay-rights organization Lambda Legal, “When a family rejects a child, that can’t happen.”
A handful of cases have dealt with the issue. In 2000, a court ruled that Pennsylvania police officers were at fault for a gay teen’s suicide after the teen was caught having sex by cops, who then threatened to out him to his family. And in 2011, a Utah school would not back down after outing a student to allegedly counteract bullying.
For Skye, the saga began back in 2009, when two softball coaches cornered her in the high school locker room, according to the court documents. The coaches then allegedly bullied Skye into admitting that she was gay and told her that she couldn’t play in that day’s game unless she came out to her mother. When she refused, the coaches called her mom, asked her to meet them at the field, and told her themselves. The next day, Skye was kicked off the team.
In the months and years that followed, Skye was harassed by classmates as a result of her outing. She also said in a sworn statement that she began cutting herself and had contemplated suicide. Her mother filed a complaint with the school, which held three levels of hearings; in 2010, Barbara Wyatt filed a suit on her daughter’s behalf. By then, Doan explains, Texas state law had changed to include policies concerning privacy and communication between educators and students, and the Kilgore school district had quietly instituted a policy against anti-gay discrimination. Maintaining the policy and educating staffers about it is part of the settlement’s agreement. “This is exactly what we wanted,” she adds.
“I think it’s an incredible decision, particularly because it shows that a student had the courage to stand up for what she thought was right,” Jenny Betz, education manager for the national Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN), tells Yahoo Shine. “The only reason it’s ever OK to disclose to anyone a student’s sexual orientation is if you have that student’s permission to do so. [Otherwise] it’s never OK.” That’s because one can never know how a parent or guardian will respond to such news, she notes — and it could lead to students' being abused, kicked out of their homes, or worse. “So it's not only a disrespectful act, but it can be a dangerous one, too," she says.
GLSEN research shows that, while eight out of 10 LGBT students report being verbally harassed because of their orientation, for those involved in sports, like Skye, it can actually be worse. “Over a quarter say they have been verbally harassed by those on their own team,” Betz notes. “And anyone who has played sports knows how important it is to have that camaraderie and trust.”
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