Nine months ago, Skye Wyatt's legal fortunes suffered what appeared to be a serious blow when the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans ruled that Kilgore ISD had violated no established law when her high school softball coaches told her mother she was a lesbian.
Now, Wyatt's legal team is declaring victory. Texas Civil Rights Project, which helped represent her throughout her four-year legal odyssey, announced Friday that the district has agreed to pay its former student "significant monetary compensation" (the Longview News-Journal says $77,000) and implement a 30-minute teacher training session designed to protect the privacy of LGBT students as part of an agreement to bring the case to a close.
"We've got the first federal court in the area finding that information related to sexual orientation is covered by constitutional privacy rights, so that's a good thing," says TCRP legal director Wayne Krause Yang, referring to a lower court's ruling that Wyatt's right to privacy outweighed Kilgore ISD's interest in outing her to her mom. "We've got widespread information out there in the media and in the public that this sort of outing needs to be avoided, [and] policies to ensure this won't happen again."
He adds, "I don't think that we could ask for much more."
So what changed? Nothing really, Yang says. The 5th Circuit's decision was extremely narrow, addressing the question of whether there was any applicable legal precedent establishing the privacy rights of gay high school students rather than whether the students are entitled to such rights. And while the appeals court dismissed one of Wyatt's claims against her former softball coaches, two others were allowed to proceed. With the trial scheduled to begin on March 3, Kilgore ISD opted to cut its losses and settle.
The victory, though, is far from total. A settlement sets no legal precedent, and Kilgore ISD still doesn't acknowledge that it did anything wrong. On the contrary, it says it only stopped fighting the suit because its insurer decided it would be too expensive.
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"The Kilgore ISD board believes that the actions of its employees were in all things lawful," the district's school board said in a written statement. "The Kilgore ISD board believes that the pre-existing policies of the district were much more than adequate, and the board policies in existence at the time will continue to remain in full force and effect. No policies are going to be withdrawn, changed or modified. No new policies are going to be adopted. The plaintiff's counsel in this case attempted to bully the board into changing its policies by threatening long, expensive and protracted litigation. The Kilgore ISD Board refused.
"The Kilgore ISD Board of Trustees has no power to oppose the payment of settlement funds in this case, that matter being solely within the discretion of the insurance carrier."
So, while the $77,000 is good news for Wyatt, and while Kilgore's new teacher training session is good news for other LGBT students in the districts, this is far from a legal spanking.
Send your story tips to the author, Eric Nicholson.