Lesbian Teacher Fights for Her Job Back
When Julia Frost applied for a teaching position with the Hesperia Unified School District, she figured it would be a perfect place to work. The district's Sultana High School was only 25 miles from her home in Wrightwood, nestled in southern California's San Gabriel Mountains.
"It was close to home and I was familiar with the area," said Frost. "I had no idea of the problems at the school."
Her first inkling after being hired to teach English in August 2011 came when Frost revealed she had a female partner to a co-worker and within days was called to the principal's office for a meeting.
"He couldn't say the word partner. He stuttered through it," Frost, 42, recalled during an interview last week with the Bay Area Reporter. "It was really, really uncomfortable and degrading."
Asked by a straight co-worker to help advise the school's gay-straight alliance, Frost was soon being approached by students who complained of being bullied and harassed by other teachers and school administrators. Their complaints included teachers using "that's so gay" in class and harassing a lesbian gender-nonconforming student elected homecoming queen.
When they tried to file official complaints about the abusive behavior, the students were rebuffed, they said, by school administrators and sought Frost's assistance. She in turn reached out to the teacher's union and met with school officials in the fall of 2012 to discuss the matter and what steps needed to be taken to protect LGBT students as required under California law.
"My legal responsibility was to provide them a classroom free of harassment and to intervene because of Seth's Law in incidents of harassment or bullying," said Frost, who was in San Francisco to address attendees at an April 25 fundraiser for the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund.
Yet the anti-gay comments and policies at Sultana High persisted, according to Frost, who continued to assist students' efforts to file complaints about the homophobic behaviors. In return, school administrators accused her of "teaching homosexuality," said Frost.
Then in February 2013 Frost, who had been hired on a probationary-status with the expectation of obtaining tenure within two years, was informed her teaching contract would not be renewed.
"I was told my contract was not being renewed, and knowing exactly why that was, was the worst moment," said Frost. "Not because of anything other than the fact they are completely repulsed by having a lesbian at their school. It was nothing to do with a professional matter but who you are and how you were born. It was shocking."
The anti-gay atmosphere at the school led the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Southern California and the law firm of Nixon Peabody LLP to become involved in March of last year. By August 2013 the school district and the legal groups announced a series of steps that would be taken at Hesperia's various school sites to foster a more welcoming environment for LGBT and gender non-conforming students.
Last November Frost, who remains unemployed, sued the Hesperia school district in San Bernardino Superior Court with the assistance of Lambda Legal and Pasadena law firm Traber and Voorhees in order to get her job back.
She claims in her lawsuit that her performance as an English teacher at Sultana was deemed "exemplary." An April 2012 evaluation concluded that her first year on the job had been "great" and her administrators "appreciate her hard work," according to court papers.
Nonetheless, Frost alleges in her lawsuit that the school district chose not to renew her teaching contract "because she is a lesbian who is open about her sexual orientation, who complained about and attempted to challenge discrimination, retaliation and harassment directed against her and others, and who supported the legal rights and the health and safety of Sultana students" who are LGBT, gender non-conforming, and their straight friends.
The school district's decision, claims Frost, "deprived her of her livelihood and endangered her career as a teacher, as a non-reelect sends a very negative signal to other potential school employers."
Asked to comment about the lawsuit by the B.A.R., the office of Hesperia Superintendent David McLaughlin referred to a statement he issued back in November dismissing Frost's claims.
"While the district may not discuss personnel matters, Ms. Frost's allegations that the district dismissed her because she 'blew the whistle' with the ACLU about students' equal rights, specifically the rights of our LGBT students, is absolutely false," stated McLaughlin. "The simple matter of fact is that a probationary teacher was legitimately and appropriately dismissed, a fact that will become evident as this matter is litigated, and she is now trying to cloud the matter, and turn it into legal action for personal gain."
McLaughlin added that, "Regardless, we will not be deterred in our commitment to make sure that our teachers are held to high standards. Sadly, her efforts serve only to fuel the argument that public education cannot dismiss teachers who do not meet district expectations without controversy and, potentially costly, legal battles."
Jennifer Pizer, Lambda Legal's senior counsel and director of its Law and Policy Project, told the B.A.R. that mediation efforts this winter to resolve the lawsuit outside of court failed and she expects the case to go to trial. After Hesperia's attorneys challenged Judge Bryan Foster being assigned the case, it is now before Judge Brian McCarville, who has yet to hold a hearing on the matter.
Confident that Frost will prevail, Pizer predicted that the cost to the school district "will be enormous" if damages are awarded. The goal of the lawsuit, however, is to see Frost be rehired as a teacher.
"Part of our goal is to have the district understand the laws are clear on this and ban against LGBT discrimination," said Pizer. "Julia's professional goals are focused on the needs of LGBT students. She is a teacher who stood up for them and is now the slain messenger."
Frost said the legal conflict has taken a toll on her and her partner of nearly six years, who prefers to remain anonymous. The couple's cars and home were vandalized with anti-gay slurs during the Christmas holiday, and they can't afford to attend a nephew's college graduation celebration in Hawaii due to her being out of a job.
While she would like to go back to work for the Hesperia school district, Frost does not want to return to Sultana High School.
"There are lots of options. They have several other high schools I could work at," she said, later adding, "If Hesperia prevails in destroying my teaching career, I have no idea what I want to do."
Should she return to the classroom, Frost is adamant about remaining an out teacher.
"I've always ever wanted to be a teacher. I am really good at it," said Frost. "It is really difficult to teach from the closet."