The ACLU-WA and Kent School District in November reached an out-of-court settlement in the lawsuit filed by former student Mark Iversen. Iversen filed suit against the school district in 1997, alleging it did not respond adequately to incidents of harassment based on his perceived sexual orientation.
The Kent School District provided Iversen with financial compensation of $40,000. While the school district had written anti-harassment policies in place, enforcement was a problem. In the settlement, the school district said it is now enforcing anti-harassment policies that protect students from persecution on any basis, including their sexual orientation or perceived sexual orientation. The District promises to continue to do so. Further, the district will maintain measures which educate teachers and administrators about student-to-student harassment and discrimination based on sexual orientation.
"The results of Iversen's case show that it is not enough for school districts to have anti-harassment policies on paper. Districts must have a commitment to enforce these policies and must take concrete steps to implement them. Curbing harassment based on sexual orientation must be pursued in practice as well as in policy," said ACLU-WA Legal Program Director Julya Hampton.
In October, 1996, Mark Iversen was brutally beaten in a Kentwood High School classroom by at least eight classmates, who yelled epithets such as "faggot" and "queer" as they struck him. Over 30 other students watched the assault, and many actively encouraged the violence.
The incident came after years of verbal and physical harassment for Iversen in Kent schools. By seventh grade, the notion that Mark was gay spread through his junior high school. Classmates began harassing him in school on nearly a daily basis, including pushing, shoving, and haranguing him with derogatory terms. The verbal assaults were accompanied by the threat of even worse physical violence. Mark and his mother repeatedly informed school officials about the harassment and asked for their help to stop the abuse. School officials failed to enforce disciplinary and anti-harassment policies to protect Mark.
"School districts need to respond swiftly and appropriately to incidents of name-calling and bullying and not fall into the trap of 'blaming the victim.' If they act to curb harassment when it first appears, they can prevent it from escalating into the physical threats and violence which Mark endured," said ACLU-WA staff counsel Aaron Caplan, who handled the case along with cooperating attorneys Jim Talbot and Aline Flower.
Mark Iversen is now attending community college. He and his mother Alice plan to continue speaking out on the need for schools to enforce policies making clear that harassment of gay students will not be tolerated. "Hopefully, my case will help to prevent other gay students around the state from facing what I went through. Schools need to make a commitment to provide safe environments for all their students," said Mark Iversen.