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Lesbian student punished for standing against anti-gay bullying sues school district

ARCADIA, Fla. -- Lambda Legal filed papers today in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Florida against DeSoto County High School in Arcadia, Fla. on behalf of Amber Hatcher, an openly lesbian 16-year-old who was punished for participating in an annual anti-bullying observance in support of LGBT students.

"Amber was respectfully and peacefully calling attention to a real problem: LGBT students at DeSoto County High School feel unwelcome and unsafe," said Beth Littrell, Lambda Legal staff attorney.

"The school should be working to help support LGBT students rather than punishing students who are standing up against bullying. By threatening, censoring and punishing Amber for her efforts to simply raise awareness, school official’s disregarded her rights as well as the Constitution."

Last April, Amber Hatcher made plans to observe National Day of Silence, a student-led day of action sponsored by Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network's (GLSEN) in which thousands of students across the country remain silent to call attention to the silencing effect of anti-LGBT bullying and harassment in schools. She asked for permission from her principal, Mrs. Shannon Fusco, nearly a month before the event and provided information from GLSEN and Lambda Legal that explained the observance and students’ legal right to participate.

When Principal Fusco threatened Amber with "ramifications" if she participated, Amber appealed directly to DeSoto County School Superintendent Adrian Cline on April 10, 12 and 13. Superintendent Cline refused to meet with her but directed the principal to tell Amber that her request was "disapproved" because allowing students to observe Day of Silence was not allowed. Principal Fusco repeatedly told Amber that she could not participate and threatened that there "would be consequences" if she did, even calling her parents and suggesting that they keep her home from school.

On April 19, 2012, Lambda Legal sent a letter to Principal Fusco and Superintendant Cline outlining the legal precedent supporting Amber’s right to observe National Day of Silence and putting them on notice that interference with students' rights could be grounds for a lawsuit.

The letter was ignored. Instead, the Principal sent an email to all teachers telling them to send anyone that appeared to be participating in the event to the office. When Amber arrived at school wearing a red t-shirt with the message “DOS April 20, 2012: Shhhhh” and communicating by dry erase board with peers and teachers, she was called to the dean's office and suspended from school for the day.

In the papers filed in court today, Lambda Legal argues that the DeSoto County Board of Education violated the First Amendment and well settled legal precedent supporting students' free speech. Based on what happened last year and because she was told again that she could not participate this year, Lambda Legal has asked the court to issue an injunction prohibiting the school from further interference with Amber's - and other students' -- First Amendment rights and requiring the school to allow her to participate in this year's Day of Silence.

"There are many LGBT kids in my school who have been bullied and harassed and who feel unsafe. I just wanted to stand up for all the kids in my school, gay or straight, who don't feel like they have a voice to stand up for themselves," Amber said. "I wish my school would help me create an accepting environment for LGBT kids, not single me out for punishment."

Littrell added, "Every year, we get reports from students across the country who are told they cannot participate in Day of Silence. Fortunately, most schools respond to our letters by respecting students’ rights to participate. For example, we sent a letter on behalf of an openly gay student in Dallas and the Carrollton-Farmers Branch Independent School District corrected its mistake and agreed to allow students to participate this year. It is too bad that we had to proceed to litigation with DeSoto County School District."

Beth Littrell, staff attorney in Lambda Legal's Southern Regional Office is handling the case for Lambda Legal. She is joined by Lambda Legal co-counsel, Nancy J. Faggianelli, of Carlton Fields in Tampa, Fla.

The case is Hatcher v. DeSoto County Board of Education, et al.

To read the Verified Complaint click HERE and to read the Motion of Preliminary Injunction click HERE.

For more information about GLSEN’s Day of Silence, visit HERE.