GLAA testifies on D.C. Corporation Counsel
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Testimony before the D.C. Council
Committee on the Judiciary
Oversight and Performance Hearing
on the Office of the Corporation Counsel

February 24, 2000

Chairman Brazil, Members of the Committee, and Fellow Citizens:

My name is Bob Summersgill. I am President of the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance of Washington (GLAA), the nation's oldest continuously active gay and lesbian rights organization.

We will be celebrating our 29th Anniversary on April 27 at the Doyle Washington Hotel on Dupont Circle. Councilmembers should receive their invitations soon.

We welcome these oversight and performance hearings as a valuable opportunity to brief the Committee on the Judiciary.

I am pleased to note that major improvements have been made in the past few months, and much of that is attributable to Robert Rigsby.

GLAA has been bringing the unfortunate details surrounding the death of Tyra Hunter to the attention of the Corporation Counsel, the Mayor, and the Council ever since this tragic incident in August 1995. We are pleased that settlement negotiations have finally begun, and hopefully will soon end this matter.

Unfortunately, previous Corporation Counsels failed to heed GLAA's advice and settle the case before trial. Now the City is in an extremely poor negotiating position to settle the case.

Fighting this indefensible case any further is likely to result only in greater legal expenses for the City, more interest to be paid, and a worse negotiating position.

There is only so much the Corporation Counsel can do given the inexcusable actions of the city employees such as firefighter Adrian Williams whose racist, homophobic and transphobic epithets and failure to provide life saving care to Tyra Hunter cost the City a half million dollars for civil rights violations. The additional malpractice at DC General cost the city $2.4 million and Tyra her life.

The City has never taken disciplinary action against Williams or his co-workers who failed to perform as professionals and dispense basic medical care. In fact in December Williams was promoted to sergeant. We will have to see how many more lives and how much more in legal fees and jury awards Williams will cost the City in the future.

The failure of the City to train and instruct its employees in appropriate and professional behavior has led to at least one other lawsuit against the city with circumstances uncomfortably similar to the Tyra Hunter Case.

The Corporation Counsel may again be put in the unenviable position of defending the indefensible position of first responders not responding and incompetent doctors unable to tell a chest wound from a head wound resulting in the death of their patients. Hopefully the Corporation Counsel's office has learned its lesson from the Tyra Hunter case and will cut its losses instead of arguing that injured people lying in street don't mind being ridiculed by the people that are supposed to save their lives.

The Corporation Counsel is also facing the prospect of lawsuits against the DC Public School system for failing to protect students from harassment and even violent attack and rape by other students. On January 13, a male student, who claimed that he was suffering verbal and physical harassment for several months, was raped in the bathroom of Kramer Middle School by one of his harassers. An arrest was made-although top DCPS officials told GLAA yesterday that they were unaware of the incident, although it was reported in the Washington Post. What else is going on in the DC public Schools?

Less serious harassment led to the million-dollar judgment in Nabozny v. Podlesny, against a Wisconsin school district in 1998 where the school did not protect a student after he repeatedly went to them for help.

The United States Supreme Court ruled last May that schools that willfully ignore harassment of one student by another can be held liable for violating federal civil rights law.

Writing for the majority in Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor said lawsuits may be filed against school officials who knowingly and deliberately ignore student-on-student harassment. GLAA warned Superintendent Arlene Ackerman last August about the potential liability, but serious discussions of a change in policy have only just begun.

The DC Council has also left the Corporation Counsel with a likely and expensive lawsuit in defense of the recently passed Megan's Law. While the law's intent is to warn neighbors of dangerous convicted rapists and pedophiles, it fails to provide for a mechanism for people who are not a threat to their neighbors to challenge their being listed and reported. DC's law is based on the Massachusetts law, which has twice been ruled unconstitutional by its state Supreme Court on this basis. The U.S. Supreme Court has also refused to hear a challenge to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's ruling that their similarly constructed Megan's Law is likewise unconstitutional.

Defense of this poorly written law will fall to the Corporation Counsel. How long will they have to defend this law and at what expense before the Council revisits the law and rewrites it as GLAA, the ACLU and the Public Defenders Service advised last year?

We would hope that at the very least, the full financial burdens of defending this law in courts will be borne by the U.S. Attorney's Office and the Justice Department, since the law was passed for their benefit and not that of the citizens of DC.

The Corporation Counsel is moving in the right direction, hopefully towards ending its defense of the indefensible and finally negotiating a settlement in the Tyra Hunter case, but Council and the Mayor need to make serious reforms to keep the City from being sued in the first place.

Thank you for your attention. I would be glad to answer any questions you may have.


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