UPDATE: It Gets Better

Lady Gaga (with the recent unveiling of her Born This Way Foundation) has joined The PBEye in shining light on the problems associated with bullying and the importance of creating congenial and accepting communities.  We previously highlighted examples of law firms and legal departments collaborating with organizations to undertake pro bono work focused on promoting educational environments where every student can feel safe and thrive.

We have an update on one of those projects, in case you missed it:  In March, Faegre Baker Daniels LLP*† reached a landmark agreement on behalf of its clients, students who had filed a federal gender and sexual orientation harassment lawsuit against the Anoka-Hennepin (Minnesota) School District.  The consent decree includes significant new protections designed to prevent harassment of students who are or perceived to be lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) and gender non-conforming, as well as those who have friends or parents who are LGBT.  As part of the agreement, the District rescinded its neutrality policy—which limited support and assistance to LGBT students—in favor of a requirement that teachers may “affirm the dignity and self-worth of students” regardless of race, sexual orientation, disabilities, or other factors.  The decree includes a comprehensive, systemic plan to counter and prevent harassment in the District’s education programs and activities.  As part of that plan, the District will strengthen measures to prevent, detect, and punish bullying based on gender or sexual orientation; hire a full-time “harassment-prevention” official; bolster mental health counseling; and identify harassment “hot spots” on the campuses of middle and high schools.  The individual students who sued will also receive a total payment of $270,000.  The Department of Justice will monitor the District for five years to ensure compliance with the consent decree.

Congratulations to Faegre Baker Daniels LLP*† whose significant pro bono work on this case, in collaboration with the Southern Poverty Law Center and the National Center for Lesbian Rights, has contributed to creating a safe learning environment for LGBT students in Minnesota and around the country.  As the lead pro bono attorney observed:

Through their bravery in stepping forward, our clients have helped to bring about a settlement which not only promises to improve the lives of students in Anoka-Hennepin, but also sets an example nationwide.  These kids and their families are heroes.  They have turned adversity into opportunity and in doing so they truly can take credit for helping to make the world a better place.

Additional inspiring examples include:

  • Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom*† assisted Lambda Legal with Jamie Nabozny’s historic case.  For four years Jamie was subjected to relentless antigay verbal and physical abuse by fellow students at his public high school in Wisconsin. Students urinated on him, pretended to rape him during class, and when they found him alone kicked him so many times in the stomach that he required surgery.  Although they knew of the abuse, school officials said at one point that Jamie should “expect it if he’s gay.”  He attempted suicide several times, dropped out of school, and ultimately ran away.  But he wanted to make sure that other students didn’t go through the same kind of nightmare.  The case ultimately resulted in the first judicial opinion finding that a public school could be held accountable for not stopping the abuse.  A jury ultimately found the school officials liable for the harm they caused.  The case then settled for close to $1 million.   The  case electrified the nation’s education community and led to an explosion in legal advocacy for LGBT students, including the Minnesota case discussed above.
  • Davis Wright Tremaine LLP*† has provided pro bono assistance related to trademark protection and policing, online policies, and a host of other legal matters to the It Gets Better Project.  (Shearman & Sterling LLP*†; O’Melveny & Myers LLP*; and Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe LLP*†, among others, created short videos featuring statements and stories from firm lawyers and staff who stress that it really does get better.)
  • Cooley LLP*† played a key role in leading a coalition that won passage of Massachusetts’ new anti-bullying law.  As more states pass anti-bullying bills and measures to curb cyber-bullying, there will be increased need and opportunities for pro bono lawyers.  To encourage pro bono representation of eligible students who have been bullied, public interest organizations are organizing trainings and informational sessions.

Are you undertaking pro bono work to support anti-bullying efforts in your schools and communities?  Leave a comment and share your experience.

 * denotes a Signatory to the Law Firm Pro Bono Challenge®
† denotes a Member of the Law Firm Pro Bono Project