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Lambda Legal Sues Hesperia School District for Alleged Retaliation Against Lesbian Teacher



On Tuesday, Nov. 19, Lambda Legal filed a lawsuit against Hesperia Unified School District and Sultana High School administrators in San Bernardino County Superior Court alleging the school did not renew the contract of openly lesbian teacher Julia Frost after she helped GSA students complain to the ACLU about harassment and discrimination directed at them.

"From day one, Julia Frost was subjected to harassment by administrators and other faculty because of her sexual orientation," Jennifer Pizer, Lambda Legal Senior Counsel and Director, Law and Policy Project, said in a press release after filing the lawsuit. "But Julia kept focused on her role as a teacher. When she was asked to co-sponsor the Gay/Straight Alliance student club at Sultana, she stepped up. And when she saw the criticism and open hostility directed at gay, lesbian and gender non-confirming students in the hallways and classrooms, she helped them understand how to make formal complaints. Sultana High officials pushed Julia Frost out for being a kind and conscientious teacher and for creating a safe space for vulnerable students. In other words, she was punished for doing her job."

"Throughout her two years at Sultana High, Julia was repeatedly singled out by the principal and other top administrators, even though the actions they questioned were identical to the actions of heterosexual teachers," said Bert Voorhees of Trabe & Voorhees, Lambda Legal's co-counsel in the lawsuit. "And yet, notwithstanding the hostile work environment these officials created, Julia was a beloved teacher who received five very positive performance reviews before the ACLU publicly criticized Sultana's treatment of lesbian, gay and gender-nonconforming students."

According to the excellent reporting by TheSun.com’s Beau Yarbrough, the district positively responded to the ACLU complaint about harassment and discrimination and acknowledged its potentially harmful effect on students—who had elected a lesbian homecoming queen—by changing dress code and other LGBT awareness policies for staff and administrators. 

But, Lambda and Frost claim, the school started retaliating against her even before the ACLU letter arrived.

Yarbrough reports:

The teacher who helped high schoolers blow the whistle on administrators’ treatment of gay students says she was fired in retaliation and is suing to get her job back. 

Last fall, she helped members of Sultana High School’s Gay Straight Alliance club bring in the ACLU of Southern California in response to what she and students saw as a pattern of discrimination against gay students and club members by teachers and administrators.

“My job is to help defend and teach my kids, and that’s what I did,” English teacher Julia Frost said Monday.

But weeks before the ACLU called Hesperia Unified out in March, Frost was told her contract wouldn’t be renewed for the 2013-14 school year. ...

Although Hesperia Unified denied a climate hostile to gay and lesbian students existed at the school, the ACLU and Hesperia Unified agreed in August to changes to district policy and training procedures. But Frost was left out in the cold, a victim, she believes, of retaliation after she helped her students protest their treatment.

“This is the other shoe dropping, if you will,” attorney Bert Voorhees said [of Pasadena-based Traber and Voorhees, which is working with Lambda Legal on the case].

Frost believes her treatment by administrators is part of the same pattern of behavior that her students complained about.

“All I want to do is teach and make a difference,” she said. “It’s surreal, me sitting here, not teaching for the first time in 16 years.”

Frost, who started at Sultana in 2011-12 and was asked to be co-sponsor the school’s GSA club, said she was immediately singled out—her sexual orientation was brought up Principal Larry Bird at the very first meeting with administers without the other GSA teachers present. But the situation for students got worse in the fall of 2012 after the student-elected lesbian homecoming queen wore a suit, not a dress.

“It was almost like a tornado,” Frost told Yarbrough “It became just a toxic environment with kids as a whole. ... These were comments made by adults,” Frost said. “It’s so much more hurtful” than comments made by students.

Yarbrough reports that Hesperia Unified did not issue pink slips to any other teachers this year. Superintendent David McLaughlin would not comment.

The issue is larger than the lawsuit. The ACLU’s LGBTQ Student Rights Project
and other organizations that help protect LGBT students and monitor safe-school policies depend on whistle-blowers—whether students, teachers, school administrators, parents or another reliable third party—to alert them to discrimination and harassment. Firing Frost for doing her GSA job—helping students properly and officially complain, as the lawsuit alleges—sends a warning to other teachers, administrators and anyone who relies on the district for their job that calling in the ACLU to fix a problem will land you in trouble. That potential chilling effect among those who don’t want the expense or publicity of a lawsuit could prompt some to look the other way.

The lawsuit also calls into question whether the district will live up to the promises it made to the ACLU to change their biased behavior. But who will act as monitor if the whistleblowers are silenced? 

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