$220,000 Message Sent to Nation's School Administrators
Teachers Treated Her Pleas for Help with 'Deliberate Indifference'
By Jack Nichols
Alma McGowan, 17, was awarded $220,000 Friday by a Kentucky jury in federal court, having sufficiently proved her case against Spencer County school administrators that they had failed to take appropriate action on her behalf when—between her 11th to her 15th years—she was persistently taunted as a "lezzie" and "that German gay girl." (See GayToday, September 3, Top Story)
The jury deliberated for approximately four hours before reaching its decision.
McGowan and Steven Vance, 18, jointly sued the Spencer County school system, but Vance, who suffers a form of autism, did not receive an award because—although students had also taunted him as "gay"—he'd made no complaints to school administrators. Ms. McGowan, however, had clearly voiced her fears while her German immigrant mother had requested of school administrators that those fears be properly addressed.
Instead of taking action on the complaints, Spencer County teachers had ignored them, interpreting the taunts to the young girl as evidences that boys found her "cute" and that their threats and pranks were therefore standard boyish behavior. Spencer County, a rural area dominated by fundamentalist Christians, is located southeast of Louisville, Kentucky.
In June the U.S. Supreme Court announced that "deliberate indifference" on the part of administrators must be proved to sustain a person's harassment claims against any public institution. The Louisville federal jury which heard Ms. McGowan's case agreed with her that the Spencer County school system had been not only negligent, but had been "indifferent" to her calls for help.
The McGowan award is regarded a milestone case, having been the first to meet the Supreme Court's recently established criterion for proving such harassment claims. It thus sets a stage for legal action on behalf of other similarly taunted youths nationwide--those whose pleas for assistance are currently being ignored by school officials.
Ms. McGowan's lawyer, Oliver Barber, said his client had to show not only that she clearly told the proper officials about what her tormenters were doing, but also that those same administrators had deliberately failed to take appropriate action.
Spencer County, says Bob Chenoweth, its lawyer, will consider appealing the jury's decision.
Ms. McGowan, after expressing free-choice sentiments during a classroom discussion about abortion, had also been accused by fellow students of "sleeping with the devil". One boy partially removed his pants, pushing her against a wall, suggesting sexual congress such as his fellow students believed had transpired between the devil and Ms. McGowan.
When Ms. McGowan's mother sent a note of complaint to her teachers, the young girl was called into a meeting to face her tormenters who thereafter dubbed her "that German gay girl tattletale." No known punishment was thereafter meted out to her tormenters.
Nor did school officials make appropriate reprimands following a school assembly—in full view of the faculty-- when students shouted "lezzie" at Ms. McGowan as she helped pull a float into the gathering. Her suit claimed that the girl had been forced out of the school system by the ethnic and sexist taunts. After being tutored at home, Alma McGowan now attends Jefferson Community College.
As the verdict was read, Ms. McGowan sat quietly. Once outside the Louisville courtroom she said she hoped she'd helped to send a message. "This can't go on," she told reporters, "There are so many other girls out there, and they're scared, too."