For the first time in a decade, Justice Department lawyers have moved to intervene in a lawsuit on behalf of a gay high school student who was beaten up for being effeminate.
The case marks a novel interpretation of the Title IX statute, which prohibits discrimination against students on the basis of gender.
Gay and lesbian groups see it as a bold statement about the Obama administration’s priorities.
The case centers around a 15-year-old named Jacob who lives in the town of Mohawk in upstate New York. His family requested that Jacob be identified only by his first name.
"He is one of the greatest, loving, timid kids you could meet," says Jacob’s father, Robbie Sullivan, who does not share his son’s last name. "I love him to death, and he doesn’t give me a bit of problem at all."
Long before Jacob came out of the closet at age 14, he was harassed for being effeminate. According to court papers, kids threw food at him and told him to get a sex change. One student pulled out a knife and threatened to string Jacob up the flagpole. A teacher allegedly told Jacob to "hate himself every day until he changed."
One day, Jacob came home from school limping. That evening, he called his father from a party and said he had sprained his ankle at the party.
Sullivan described taking his son to the hospital: "It was a really bad sprain. They put a cast on it, gave him crutches. And shortly after that, I found out that it didn’t happen at the party. It happened at the school, because somebody had pushed him down the stairs."
Over two years, Sullivan went to his son’s school three or four times a week to talk with the principal. According to court papers, officials did nothing. The harassment became so bad that Jacob changed school districts. With the help of the New York Civil Liberties Union, Sullivan eventually sued.
"A parent can only do so much against an entire school," he said. "I can’t go to the school and grab the students and investigate it myself. I have to rely on the school to hopefully do what they’re supposed to do."
School superintendent Joyce Caputo was at a conference Friday and was unavailable for comment. In August, she told the local newspaper, "Our district has not and will not knowingly tolerate discrimination or harassment of its students by anybody."