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Schroeder v. Hamilton School Dist.

March 11, 2002

TOMMY R. SCHROEDER, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
HAMILTON SCHOOL DISTRICT, ET AL., DEFENDANTS-APPELLEES.



Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin. No. 98 C 1270--William E. Callahan, Jr., Magistrate Judge.

Before Posner, Manion, and Diane P. Wood, Circuit Judges.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Manion, Circuit Judge.

Argued October 26, 2001

Tommy Schroeder, a school teacher, filed suit against his former employer, the Hamilton [Wisconsin] School District, the school district administrator, and several staff administrators (including school principals and human resource directors), pursuant to 42 U.S.C. sec. 1983, alleging that they violated his right to equal protection by failing to take reasonable measures to prevent students and parents, and occasionally fellow staff members, from harassing him about his homosexuality. The district court granted summary judgment for the defendants. Schroeder appeals, and we affirm.

I.

In 1990, after teaching for approximately 15 years in the Hamilton School District, Tommy Schroeder began teaching sixth grade at Templeton Middle School in Hamilton, Wisconsin. Shortly after arriving at Templeton, Schroeder disclosed his homosexuality to a few of his fellow staff members and, during his second or third year at the school, made the same disclosure at a public meeting. This information eventually spread throughout the Templeton community, and, beginning with the 1993-94 school year, Schroeder began receiving unpleasant inquiries and crude, occasionally cruel, taunts from students regarding his homosexuality.*fn1

While there were isolated incidents involving parents,*fn2 as well as some of Schroeder's colleagues,*fn3 the bulk of the harassment he endured at Templeton came from students. Some of the incidents were rather mild. For example, a fifth-grade girl asked Schroeder to verify a rumor that he was gay. Another student authored a note complaining that she had been disciplined by "the gay man." Finally, other students were found discussing Schroeder's homosexuality during homeroom.

Many of the reported student comments and actions, however, were far worse--accusations that he had AIDS; astudent calling him a faggot and remarking "How sad there are any gays in the world"; another student physically confronted Schroeder after shouting obscenities at him; catcalls in the hallways that he was a "queer" or a "faggot"; obscenities shouted at him during bus duty; harassing phone calls with students chanting "faggot, faggot, faggot" and other calls where he was asked whether he was a "faggot"; and bathroom graffiti identifying Schroeder as a "faggot," and describing, in the most explicit and vulgar terms, the type of sexual acts they presumed he engaged in with other men. He reported this harassment on several occasions, and the defendants "consequenced" (i.e., a term of art in education circles for student discipline) the students identified with the offensive behavior.*fn4 Much of the harassment, however, was anonymous, and therefore went unpunished. As Patty Polczynski, the associate principal at Templeton, told Schroeder, "[i]t makes it difficult to consequence if you don't know who it is to consequence."

Because of the widespread, anonymous nature of the harassment, Schroeder demanded that the defendants conduct "sensitivity training" to condemn discrimination against homosexuals (presumably for the students at Templeton-- the chief perpetrators of the harassment). Instead, Polczynski, after several meetings with Schroeder, circulated a memorandum to teachers and other staff noting that students were continuing to use "inappropriate and offensive racial and/or gender-related words or phrases," and that "[i]f you observe or overhear students using inappropriate language or gestures, please consequence them as you feel appropriate . . . ." Schroeder considered this memorandum to be a milquetoast response to the harassment he was receiving, especially in comparison to a previous Polczynski memorandum warning staff that "derogatory racial comments and symbols" were "totally unacceptable" and "contrary to [the school's] efforts to create a positive academic environment for all students." When the harassment continued, Schroeder expressed his frustration to Polczynski, and she responded by telling him that "you can't stop middle school kids from saying things. Guess you'll just have to ignore it."

Finally, after several requests for a transfer, Schroeder was moved to Lannon Elementary School in the fall of 1996, where he taught first- and second-grade classes. After a year's respite, the taunts resumed. This time, however, they came primarily from adults, presumably the parents of students at Lannon. At the beginning of his second year at Lannon, an anonymous memo was circulated by a parent proclaiming, "Mr. Schroeder openly admitted at a district meeting that he was homosexual. Is that a good role model for our 5-, 6- and 7-year-old children?" Schroeder also claims that he began hearing that certain staff members and parents were calling him a pedophile and accusing him of sexually abusing small boys. One parent removed his child from Schroeder's class because of Schroeder's homosexuality. Another parent's fear that Schroeder was a pedophile led defendant Richard Ladd, Lannon's principal, to raise the possibility of "proximity supervision" (i.e., meaning that Schroeder could not be alone with male students). The tires on Schroeder's car were slashed, and he began receiving anonymous, harassing phone calls at home (e.g. "Faggot, stay away from our kids" and "We just want you to know you . . . queer that when we pull out all our kids, you will have no job").

In February 1998, Schroeder, who has a protracted history of psychiatric problems, experienced a "mental breakdown." On February 11, 1998, Schroeder's last day at Lannon, Ladd approached him about complaints that he had received from some of his students' parents. Schroeder told Ladd that he did not want to talk about it, and that he was resigning. Later that day, Schroeder handed Ladd a letter of resignation. At this point, Ladd offered to arrange for a substitute teacher to take over Schroeder's class and requested that he take some time to think about whether he really wanted to resign. Schroeder declined the request, and never reported to work at Lannon again. Schroeder did, however, apply for medical leave and long-term disability insurance. Pursuant to terms of the collective bargaining agreement between the teacher's union and the Hamilton School District, the district terminated Schroeder's employment at the end of the 1998-99 school year.

Schroeder contends that the harassment he received from students, parents, and fellow teachers/staff members at Templeton and Lannon, coupled with the defendants' failure to properly address the problem, caused him to have a nervous breakdown that ultimately resulted in his termination. He therefore filed suit against the defendants, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. sec. 1983, alleging that they denied him equal protection of the law by failing to take effective steps to prevent him from being harassed on account of his sexual orientation. The parties filed cross motions for summary judgment, and the district court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants. Schroeder appeals the decision.

II.

We review de novo the district court's decision to grant summary judgment, construing all facts, and drawing all reasonable inferences from those facts, in favor of Schroeder, the non-moving party. Johnson v. Univ. of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, 70 F.3d 469, 477 (7th Cir. 1995). Summary judgment is appropriate if there is no genuine issue as to any material ...


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