UPDATED: ACLU Announces Settlement of Suit Tied to Corona del Mar High's Production of "Rent"

Karyl Ketchum and Mike Wiggins talk about the hell their 17-year-old daughter Hail endured at Corona del Mar High School last school year.
Karyl Ketchum and Mike Wiggins talk about the hell their 17-year-old daughter Hail endured at Corona del Mar High School last school year.
Photo by Matt Coker

Three varsity football players at Corona del Mar High School posted a video on the school's Facebook page in January in which they describe how and where they would rape now 17-year-old Hail Ketchum-Wiggins before disclosing the manner in which they would shoot her to death. The video also includes homophobic remarks directed at another student.

Immediately after seeing the video, which was posted with the profile of a fourth male student, the girl's parents met with vice principal Duncan McCulloch, who assured them all four boys would be punished. As far as the Ketchum-Wigginses know that never happened, because within days of their meeting with the school official, the boy with the profile page confronted their daughter on campus and threatened her again.

The family also contacted the Newport Beach Police Department and the Orange County District Attorney's Office. The case was apparently kicked back down to a district security official, who essentially told the Ketchum-Wigginses it had been determined the boys could not carry out their threats because they had no access to guns.

About a month after the video was posted, the football players received honors from their school for their athletic prowess. Hail, whose crime in their eyes was expressing disappointment on Facebook that her theater class' production of the musical Rent had been cancelled, had to change her daily routine, switch classes and take other precautions to avoid contact with those still among her who'd threatened to rape and kill her.

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It was only after the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California and a Pasadena firm that specializes in First Amendment issues filed a lawsuit in March that alleged McCulloch, then-principal Fal Asrani, Newport-Mesa Unified School District superintendent Jeffrey Hubbard and the Newport-Mesa board tolerated sexism and homophobia on campus that serious efforts to protect the girl were finally taken.

With today's announced settlement of the suit, Hail has gone public with her identity. Her tormentors remain protected under a cloak of anonymity due to their ages.

Citing the "uncommon courage" of Hail, who was bedridden with the flu and could not attend today's announcement at the ACLU's office in Orange, and her family, Hector Villagra, director of that office, expressed pride in announcing the settlement "that will ensure the safety of all students at Corona del Mar High School."

Under the terms of the agreement forwarded to an Orange County Superior Court judge today, the district must:

-Provide eight hours of mandatory training for 30 district administrators into protecting students based on their sex and gender identificiation;

-Create a team of administrators certified to train others about the same;

-Provide four hours of mandatory training about the same for all teachers, staff and students at Corona del Mar High School.

(The Long Beach/Orange County office of the Anti-Defamation League was assigned to administer all training and make sure the district and high school live up to the terms of the settlement.)

-Conduct a district-administered survey of all Corona del Mar High students to determine the level of bias against others that exists on campus so that reforms can be implemented.

Mike Wiggins, Hail's father, estimated that the video featuring details of the proposed execution-style killing of his daughter had been seen by 600 students at the school and an undetermined number of others off campus before it was finally taken down.

His wife, Karyl Ketchum, said that while it is too late for the settlement to protect members of Corona del Mar High's Class of 2009, or to give certain members of that class much-needed lessons in tolerance, her daughter is pleased that measures will be taken for current and future students there.

Wiggins later read a statement from his absent daughter saying she was happy with the settlement because other kids will not have to go through what she did. She also hoped that the arrival of a new principal will allow students to feel safe and hate speech to end on campus. (Asrani was reassigned but, as Ketchum later disclosed, McCulloch remains at the school, something "that still concerns us.")

A women's studies professor at Cal State Fullerton, Ketchum said the atmosphere at Corona del Mar High was part of a tolerated hatred of women, since violent sexism and homophobia was directed at girls and violent homophobia was directed at boys deemed "not masculine enough."

She added that a larger problem remains at the school that district administrators should address: classism. Among the wealthiest families in the county send their children to Corona del Mar's middle and high schools.

Alongside Ketchum was Ron Martin, the Corona del Mar High theater teacher who wanted to stage Jonathan Larson's Rent--a hugely popular Broadway musical that follows impoverished young artists and musicians, some of whom are gay and HIV-infected, struggling to live in New York City's Lower East Side--to temper the rampant homophobia on campus.

That blew up in his face when Asrani canceled the spring production, blaming the teacher for failing to provide her a script to review and approve. Her move drew widespread condemnation and national headlines. After Martin presented a script for a toned-down, high school-friendly version of the musical, Asrani allowed the show to premiere on April 23. The production brought TV news crews and protesters to the school, including the Kansas Christian ministry of the Rev. Fred Phelps of "God hates fags" fame.

As Ketchum-Wiggins was being harassed and school and district officials seemed loathe to do anything about it, Martin contacted the ACLU, which filed the suit "over a sexist and homophobic atmosphere that officials permitted to flourish at the school."

"Our voices were heard," Martin said of today's announced settlement. "Bigotry is not going to be tolerated on the Corona del Mar High School campus."
 
He choked up as he described watching the students heroically perform the musical each night last spring.

Martin did not want to leave anyone with the impression that the high school is overrun with bigots and homophobes. Many came forward on campus, throughout Southern California and across the nation to support his students, he said, including Larson.

"That is a cast I will never forget and will always he proud of," he said of the students.

Ketchum called settlement of the suit her daughter's "second triumph."

"The first was when she played Mimi in Rent," said Ketchum as she fought back tears. "Thank you to Ron for doing that." She later embraced Martin, who she said has saved countless student lives over the years by providing a safe place for them in the theater department. She cited figures showing that gay and lesbian students have a 40 percent higher instance of suicide.

The experience exposed the family to what she called "an extended family" of new friends and aquaintances, including Tom Petersen, a board member with the Orange County Equality Coalition and Corona del Mar resident who lives within walking distance of the school.

At the podium, Petersen said he was "appalled" that nothing was done officially about documented threats against someone in his neighborhood, or that harassment of girls and gay students was officially allowed on campus. "That is not reflective of this community," he said. "It is as wrong as wrong can be."

He vowed that the coalition will now closely monitor the school to ensure more hate-filled flare-ups do not occur so that "everyone" on campus can feel safe.

Asked if they considered transferring their daughter out of Corona del Mar High, the Ketchum-Wiggines said they talked about that with Hail but that she decided it would be better not to give in. They also decided as a family against lawsuits seeking damages, saying this was never about money. They only wanted to achieve what is said in the ACLU suit: to stop the district and school officials from "permitting and sanctioning an atmosphere that is hostile to female, lesbian, bisexual, gay and transgender students in general, and has led to despicable threats of violence against one student in particular."

As for that one student, other than being ill at the moment, she is doing well as a theater arts major at Loyola Marymount University, reports her mom. She learned a lot from the ordeal, Ketchum said of her daughter, including to always stand up for what is right.


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