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CNN AMERICAN MORNING WITH PAULA ZAHN

Out of Gym

Aired December 19, 2002 - 09:15   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

BILL HEMMER, CNN ANCHOR: Fifteen-year-old Ashly Massey was kicked out of her 8th grade gym class last spring, and now she is suing the school district. The issue she says, that she claims she was banned from gym and banned from the girl's locker room because she is a lesbian. Ashly, her mother, Amelia Massey, and their attorney Martha Matthews now join us this morning from Beaumont, California.
We say good morning to all three of you for getting up early for us. We tried to contact the superintendent, the school district, not one of our phone calls yesterday was returned, so we do want to get that out there.

Ashly, tell us your story. What happened last March?

ASHLY MASSEY, SUING SCHOOL DISTRICT: Well, last March, I went to the locker room, and we had a conversation, this girl and I. And she asked if I was a lesbian. And I didn't say anything. And another girl overheard it and she yelled out across the room that, yes, I was a lesbian and the PE teacher overheard it. The next day I went to class. I asked the teacher for something and she said, you need to go to the principal's office, he wants to talk to you. I didn't know why and so that's what I was stuck with.

HEMMER: What did the principal say?

ASHLY MASSEY: He didn't say anything. I was -- I just sat in the office for about a week and a half. He'd walk in and out of his office. He would see me; he'd know I was there, but he wouldn't come and talk to me or call me in at all.

HEMMER: We have been told that some of your classmates say they were uncomfortable being around you. Anything on your behalf or your behavior that might warrant that reaction?

ASHLY MASSEY: Well, see, because I didn't do anything wrong, and I think it was from the teacher because I had talked to -- spoken to a lot of the girls in there, and I said, you know, if there's a problem in the locker room, then tell me. But they said they were fine and there wasn't a problem.

HEMMER: So, you're not at that school any longer, right?

ASHLY MASSEY: Right.

HEMMER: You're at a different school. And is that because of this incident?

ASHLY MASSEY: No, it's just because we happened to move, switch districts.

HEMMER: I want to get your mom in this quickly here. Tell us, how did you find out about this, Ms. Massey?

AMELIA MASSEY, ASHLY'S MOTHER: Well, the gym instructor phoned and she got a hold of me a couple days later and said that there had been an incident in the locker room. And I said, tell me about it. She said it had to do with sexual orientation. And I said, well, was there anything inappropriately done and she said, no, Ashly was fine. But we have a concern with the girls here and they feel a little uncomfortable. I said, I think you need to take that up with your administration if you have a problem. But, you know, call me back, if you need to speak with me. And I never heard another word.

HEMMER: What do you hope to get out of the school district right now, with this case in court?

AMELIA MASSEY: We want to have some policies changed or we want to have them revised. We want to have education for these instructors. We want to make sure that the civil rights are withheld for the children and that this doesn't happen to anybody. And nobody should be made out to be a mockery in their own school.

HEMMER: Ashly, how are you doing today?

ASHLY MASSEY: I am doing okay.

HEMMER: No lingering effects? You're all taken care of?

ASHLY MASSEY: Yeah. I'm doing good.

HEMMER: All right, Ashly Massey, thanks, your mother, Amelia Massey and Martha Matthews, the attorney as well there of Beaumont, California.

I want to continue our discussion right now, and ask this question, how strong is the Ashly Massey case right now? And is there any sort of legal precedent for this kind of matter?

Former U.S. Attorney Kendall Coffey now with some background and a look at the legal significance of this. Kendall is live in Miami.

Good to see you again, Where does this case go? How strong is it?

KENDALL COFFEY, FORMER U.S. ATTORNEY: It is a strong case and just as importantly, it is a cause, because the issue of the kind of abuse that a lot of gay students suffer in high schools is not isolated to one high school or one state, it is a nationwide problem. And it's very destructive. It's tough enough to be a teenager, but when teenagers are singled out for that kind of abuse, it can be very, very damaging. This isn't just about human dignity, it is also something that should be matter for any concerned parent.

HEMMER: Kendall, have you see precedent across the country? COFFEY: There are cases, and the cases that are out there are very supportive of Ashly, not just in the sense that she was singled out, effectively isolated for separate, disparate treatment. But even beyond that, what a lot of federal courts have held is that the school has an affirmative duty to stamp out intolerance. So, for example, if Ashly was the subject of taunts, which according to some news reports she was, and other sort of ugly aspersions, that's something that the school district should not tolerate. That is something that has to be stamped out. So this is an important case, and there is good legal support for the position she is taking, not just ...

HEMMER: And if that's the case, then why would a school react that way, if indeed it is true what you're saying and describing for us today?

COFFEY: Because the ignorance is widespread. The same school probably, if a racial aspersion were epithetically cast, would have stamped it down immediately, zero tolerance. But for some reason, there is still an awful lot of documented adult acceptance of very ugly comments that are made about gay students. As one court addressed -- because this is such a serious matter, this goes not just to feeling bad or teasing, but to fundamental problems with gay student population -- one federal court talked about the fact that teen suicide is the third largest cause of death among teenager, and that the rate of suicide among gay teens is six times higher. So this is a very serious issue..

HEMMER: Thank you, Kendall. Kendall Coffey in Miami and the Masseys out there in California.

Once again, we did try and contact the school and the superintendent. None of our phone calls yesterday was returned here.

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