PHILADELPHIA, NY—Lambda Legal, with the assistance of Kirkland & Ellis LLP, has filed a lawsuit on behalf of Charlie Pratt, who endured years of antigay harassment during his time at Indian River High School, and his sister, Ashley Petranchuk, a sophomore who is trying to start a gay-straight alliance at the same high school years after her brother left. The lawsuit was filed at the US District Court for the Northern District of New York April 8, 2009.
"The fact that this high school refuses to let Ashley form a gay-straight alliance is just the most recent destructive and blatantly discriminatory act by the school," said Lambda Legal attorney Michael Kavey. "Especially given the abuse that Charlie endured, it’s clear that Indian River High School officials need to better protect their students, not only by fighting harassment, but by recognizing students’ right to form this alliance."
Indian River High School is located in Philadelphia, New York, which is located just north of the city of Watertown, New York.
Lambda Legal and Kirkland & Ellis LLP represent Charlie Pratt, who was severely harassed throughout his time in the school district. Students attacked him relentlessly with antigay and sexist slurs including names like "faggot," "sissy," "queer," and "fudgepacker," often in the presence of teachers who failed to intervene. Students also pushed him into walls and lockers, threatened him, threw food and other objects at him, spat on him, and vandalized his locker with antigay slurs. Staff members at the high school joined the harassment by ridiculing Charlie with stereotypically effeminate gestures in front of other students.
Then-principal James Kettrick – now the district’s superintendent refused to take appropriate action, and instead told Charlie and his parents, Bobbi and Todd Petranchuk, that Charlie should "tone it down" to avoid harassment. The principal also refused Bobbi Petranchuk’s request to train teachers to address antigay bullying, and he failed to change the school’s written policies to match state anti-harassment laws covering sexual orientation. Left with no other options, Charlie’s parents withdrew him from school for his own protection.
"No student should have to fear for his or her safety and suffer the cruelty that Charlie has, especially in school where teachers and administrators should be protecting students and fostering their growth as members of a community," said Sudwiti Chanda, a partner in the New York offices of Kirkland & Ellis LLP. "We hope that this lawsuit will ensure that other students like Charlie are given the opportunity they deserve to thrive in our public education system."
While Charlie was at the high school, the school repeatedly refused to allow students to form a gay-straight alliance. Last fall, Charlie’s sister, Ashley Petranchuk, again requested a gay-straight alliance to educate students on the importance of inclusion regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. She was turned down by the principal and assistant principal, who said such a club would bother parents and students.
"I want to start this club so that no other student will have to experience the nightmare that my brother faced in his time here," said Ashley Petranchuk. "I owe it to him and to current and future students."
The lawsuit includes claims on behalf of Ashley under the First Amendment, Federal Equal Access Act and state laws, all of which protect her right to equal treatment in forming a student club. Lambda Legal and Kirkland & Ellis LLP are notifying the school that they are ready to file for a preliminary injunction compelling the school to recognize the gay-straight alliance unless the school promptly agrees to do so without a court order. The lawsuit also seeks damages for Charlie for violations of the federal Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause and Free Speech Clause, as well as for violations of Title IX, the Federal Equal Access Act, and New York state antidiscrimination laws.
The case is Charles Pratt and Ashley Petranchuk v. Indian River Central School District et al.
Michael Kavey, Arthur Liman Public Interest Fellow at Lambda Legal, is joined by Lambda Legal Deputy Legal Director Hayley Gorenberg, and pro bono co-counsel Sudwiti Chanda, Partner, and Adam Humann, Associate, in the New York offices of Kirkland & Ellis LLP.