Lambda Legal, local law firm urge court to uphold Poway decision
Poway Unified School District appeals decision regarding former Poway High students
Published Thursday, 07-Dec-2006 in issue 989
Lambda Legal and law firm Rosenstein Wilson & Dean filed a brief Nov. 21 urging an appeals court to uphold a jury decision that found former Poway High School students were subjected to relentless harassment due to their sexual orientation and that Poway Unified School District failed to take measures to stop the harassment in an immediate and appropriate way.
Former students Joseph Ramelli and Megan Donovan were awarded $300,000 by a San Diego Superior Court on June 8, 2005.
Following the jury’s decision, PUSD filed a motion for a new trial but was denied on Sept. 2, 2005. The school district then filed for a notice of appeal on Sept. 21, 2005.
Jeffrey Morris, one of the attorneys with Stutz Artiano Shinoff & Holtz representing PUSD, told the Gay & Lesbian Times the reason they’re appealing the case is because the court gave an instruction that “essentially held the district to guarantee a harassment-free environment.” The instruction, along with “other incorrect instructions,” allowed the jury to find the district responsible for this alleged harassment, Morris said.
But Brian Chase, staff attorney for Lambda Legal, said all schools in California are required to take effective measures to achieve a harassment-free environment. “Even after their mothers complained about their kids being harassed because they are gay and lesbian, the school district did little to nothing to protect Joey or Megan, which is why the jury in the trial court ruled against the Poway Unified School District,” he said.
Chase said he expects the case will reach the appeals court in the next four to five months.
“First, [PUSD is] arguing that the jury was wrong in determining that the administrators had been deliberately indifferent to the harassment of Megan and Joey,” Chase said. “But of course that’s a question for the jury, not for the appellate court. They shouldn’t get the chance to retry it. They went to trial and they lost.”
When the California Legislature passed laws protecting gay and lesbian students from harassment, PUSD argues the Legislature didn’t intend to give students in California more protection than those provided under federal law, Chase said.
“So basically they’re arguing that the California Legislature went to all the trouble to pass these laws in order to do absolutely nothing that the federal government wasn’t already doing,” he said. “We’re arguing that, no, the California Legislature specifically said that schools have an affirmative duty to protect kids from harassment, and that’s what they meant. They meant to give more protection for the kids than they would get under federal law.”
Ramelli and Donovan attended Poway High from 2000 to 2003. Both students spent their senior year studying in a home-schooling program called New Directions due to their negative experiences on campus. Donovan and Ramelli graduated the program in 2004.
Bridget Wilson, an attorney representing the students, said they remain hopeful, though anything can happen during the appeal.
“We believe very strongly in this case. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t have taken it to trial,” she said.
In April 2005, Ramelli testified in a San Diego Superior Court that he had been harassed and teased about his sexual orientation since he was a freshman. Students repeatedly called him names, threw food and spit on him, vandalized his car and shoved him in the hallways, he said.
“I kept a log of the times when I was called ‘fag’ and other derogatory words, and when I was physically assaulted or my life was threatened,” Ramelli said. “Hardly a day went by that I didn’t get shoved or called a name, so there was no way that anyone could question that what was happening to me was a serious, constant problem. I don’t want future gay and lesbian students at Poway to suffer from the same harassment I went through.”
Wilson said many of the abusive incidences were reported to school administrators, but they were unresponsive. Donovan and Ramelli were in fact blamed for [the incidences], and Ramelli was accused of overreacting to the abuse, she said.
The students’ lawsuit also claimed Poway administrators had encouraged both students to leave the school to participate in the New Directions program, depriving them of a typical high school experience.
Wilson said a panel of three appellate justices will be assigned to review the case.