Texas Schools Behaving Badly
Lesbian high school student outed by coaches receives settlement in "worst bullying" case
An East Texas school district has finally settled a lawsuit filed by a former student who was forced to reveal her sexual identity in 2009.
Skye Wyatt was a 16-year-old sophomore at Kilgore High School when her softball coaches confronted her in the locker room and wouldn't let her leave until she admitted she was a lesbian. They then called her mother, Barbara Wyatt, and revealed Skye's sexual orientation without her consent.
Skye was kicked off the softball team immediately and later barred from playing volleyball as well. After Barbara Wyatt filed a lawsuit against the school district in 2010, its attorneys rounded up a handful of Skye's classmates to sign sworn affidavits discrediting her character and integrity.
"It’s the worst bullying I’ve ever seen," says Houston attorney Paula Hinton, who represented student Skye Wyatt.
"It’s the worst bullying I’ve ever seen," says Houston attorney Paula Hinton, who represented Skye pro bono along with Jennifer Doan and the Texas Civil Rights Project.
"Not only has this girl been outed to her mother and thrown off the softball team where she was a great player, the school organizes this 'mean girls style attack' and submits these horrible affidavits."
Hinton says that Skye was singled out about her sexuality because she found out that head softball coach Cassandra Newell was a lesbian and had discussed this with another teammate in a note. The lawsuit named Kilgore ISD, Newell and assistant softball coach Rhonda Fletcher, who participated in the forced locker room confession.
"Coaches Fletcher and Newell intentionally, and with deliberate, conscious, and callous indifference to Miss Wyatt’s constitutional right to privacy, disclosed her sexual orientation without her permission in derogation of her rights under the Fourteenth Amendment," the lawsuit reads. "[The coaches'] actions were not merely the result of vindictiveness against Miss Wyatt, but compliance with KISD’s policy of disclosing students’ sexual orientation to parents."
KISD argued that because Skye told Newell and Fletcher that she was dating an 18-year-old woman, they had a legal obligation to alert her parents. Hinton doesn't buy that defense.
"First of all, the law says that if you believe a child is in danger of sexual abuse, you contact law enforcement, not the parents," Hinton says. "And I seriously doubt that if the coaches found out that a 16-year-old girl was dating an 18-year-old boy they would have made this big of a deal about it. It's just total pretense in my opinion, but that's the story they started telling."
The case lasted four years, with KISD winning a small victory when the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed one of Skye's federal claims against the teachers under "qualified immunity." The case's two other claims were allowed to proceed, however, and the lawsuit was set for a March 3 jury trial. But it would never come to that.
In addition to cutting Skye a $77,500 check for mental anguish and suffering, the February 21 settlement stipulates that KISD will hold a training session on sexual orientation and privacy policies and update its student/teacher handbook to include specific language about the district's anti-discrimination for sexual orientation.
"It was a long, hard fight, but I’m really glad that the school district agreed to make a positive change that will prevent this from happening again," said Wayne Krause Yang of the Texas Civil Rights Project. "It’s not just a win for our client and her family, but for the school district, all of its students and their parents. This will benefit everybody."
For its part, Kilgore ISD still remains defiant that it ever violated Skye's constitutional rights of privacy or had inadequate anti-discrimination policies.
"The actions of coaches Fletcher and Newell were entirely appropriate," a KISD statement about the settlement reads in part. "The KISD board, its administrators, educators and employees will continue to safeguard the welfare and rights of all of its students and staff."