Archive for Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Jury hears witnesses in school lawsuit

August 10, 2005

A trial will continue today over a former Tonganoxie student's claim that he was sexually discriminated against and, therefore, denied access to an education.

Dylan Theno, now 18, claims school officials disregarded his plight -- which included being called such names as faggot and masturbator and being subjected to sexual-based rumors and other sexual innuendo. Theno, who is not a homosexual, alleges the incidents occurred between seventh and 11th grade and occurred in the school lunchrooms, in hallways and in classrooms of the junior high and high school.

The trial, now under way in U.S. District Court in Kansas City, Kan., is being heard by a two-man, six-woman jury.

U.S. District Judge John Lungstrum and the two lead attorneys in the case said they expect the jury could begin deliberations today.

The trial got under way last week, and jurors have heard more than four days of testimony.

Theno and his parents testified that they talked with school officials repeatedly about the harassment. His parents said they talked with junior high and high school principals, as well as Superintendent Richard Erickson and school board members.

"It was just like it was becoming part of his name -- that fag Theno, gay Theno," said Alan Theno, Dylan's father.

Ultimately, Dylan Theno left school in November of his junior year. He completed that semester in home-ound studies and later passed the General Education Development test and began taking classes at Johnson County Community College.

The Thenos said they kept a log of incidents, as well as conversations with school officials. Dylan Theno's father even tape-recorded some conversations with the high school vice principal.

The Thenos said they didn't report each incident of harassment to school officials -- many times at the urging of their son, who was afraid his parents' trips to the schools would only make matters worse for him.

Alan Theno said he was frustrated that school officials didn't take what he thought was strong enough action against students who were harassing his son.

Arthur Benson, Theno's attorney, asked the jury to award his client "a substantial sum of money" and to "put flesh and blood on Title IX."

School district attorneys have maintained that Theno did not suffer gender-based sexual discrimination, one of the cornerstones for the case to be considered a federal action under Title IX of the federal education law.

The other legs of a Title IX case require that the school district was aware of the harassment; that Theno was deprived of an education; and that the district was indifferent to the harassment.

Steve Pigg, one of the district's attorneys, said that Dylan Theno brought many of the problems on himself. And school district officials testified that they took the Thenos' concerns seriously.

"The district took action every time it had knowledge it could act on," Pigg said.

After Theno's attorney rested his case against the district -- and before the district's case began -- the judge talked with attorneys about the requirements of the case while the jury was not in the courtroom.

Lungstrum, the judge, said the requirements of a Title IX case require that Theno was harassed because of his gender.

"I think the evidence is very thin on that," the judge said.

He said that the words used against Theno were "sexually charged." But the question remains about whether those words were used because of Theno's gender.

"As a parent and as a citizen, I'm concerned the school district, the teachers ... I don't think their responses were adequate," the judge said. "But that's not what this case is about. ... It's a tough standard. It's a very tough standard."

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