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School Settles Lawsuit Over Gay Teen’s Outing

KILGORE, Texas (CN) - An East Texas school district agreed to pay $77,500 to settle a privacy suit filed by a mom who claimed her daughter was outed as a lesbian by two high school softball coaches.

Barbara Wyatt sued the Kilgore Independent School District and two coaches from Kilgore High School in 2010. She claimed that coaches Rhonda Fletcher and Cassandra Newell aggressively confronted her then-16-year-old daughter, S.W., about an alleged love triangle.

The coaches allegedly said the teen was involved with an older woman named Hillary Nutt, whom they claimed Newell had also dated.

Wyatt said she didn't know that her daughter, now 21, was a lesbian until the coaches confronted her about the purported relationship.

The mother said she adamantly defended her daughter's right to privacy, but the school district backed the coaches' actions, saying "they were 'legally obligated to share this information with the parent.'"

The trial court sided with Wyatt in denying Fletcher and Newell qualified immunity, but the 5th Circuit later ruled that S.W.'s privacy rights were not violated by the disclosure and granted the coaches immunity on one of Wyatt's three claims.

"There is no clearly established law holding that a student in a public secondary school has a privacy right under the 14th Amendment that precludes school officials from discussing with a parent the student's private matters, including matters relating to sexual activity of the student," Judge Grady Jolly wrote for the New Orleans-based majority. (Italics in original.)

Nonetheless, the school district agreed to settle the suit on Feb. 20 for $77,500, the Kilgore News Herald reported. The district insisted that the coaches' actions were not illegal, and that the settlement was purely a "business decision by the insurance company."

"The KISD [Kilgore Independent School District] 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," it said in a statement.

The settlement does not require the district to change any of its policies, but a code of ethics discouraging discrimination based on sexual preference or orientation will be added to employee and student-parent handbooks. All new district employees also will be required to complete a 30-minute training annually.

The district's attorney, Robert Davis with Flowers Davis in Tyler, told the Herald that the district's insurance carrier believed it could save $77,500 if it settled the case. He said the unidentified insurer believed that amount is one-third the cost of the suit making it to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Wyatt was represented pro bono by Paula Hinton with Winston Strawn in Houston, Jennifer Doan with Haltom Doan in Texarkana and the Texas Civil Rights Project (TCRP) in Austin.

Wayne Yang, TCRP legal director, said the district's decision to implement training for new employees is smart.

"All school districts should follow KISD's lead," he said in a written statement. "This is an important issue today, and any school is in danger of violating its students' constitutional right to privacy if it does not educate its teachers and staff how to properly respect students' private, personal information like their sexual orientation."

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