Rochelle Hamilton talks Monday about her complaints of being harassed at Jesse Bethel High School because she is a lesbian. At right is her mother, Cheri Hamilton. (Chris Riley/Times-Herald)
A lesbian student's complaint that teachers harassed her over her sexual orientation has led to a Vallejo school district agreement to pay her $25,000 and revamp anti-discrimination policies, it was announced Monday.

The agreement between the Vallejo City Unified School District and the American Civil Liberties Union was reached without litigation, said ACLU attorney Elizabeth Gill.

In agreeing to the settlement, the district is not admitting liability, Gill and district Superintendent Mary Bull said.

The student, Rochelle Hamilton, now 16, was a sophomore at Jesse Bethel High School in the fall of 2007, when teachers allegedly verbally harassed her and forced her to attend a counseling session for gay students. Gill said the counselor tried to discourage Hamilton and other students in the session from being gay.

The alleged harassment included a staff member telling Hamilton she was "ungodly" and "going to hell" as she embraced her then-girlfriend. The alleged comments transformed the "social butterfly" into a teenager on the verge of suicide, Hamilton's mother Cheri said Monday.

Rochelle Hamilton, who came out as a lesbian when she was 13, said Monday she became depressed because of daily negative comments from teachers and staff about her sexual orientation and her appearance.

Her standard dress is stereotypically male, with baggy jeans.

The teen said a teacher held a girls' locker room door closed and would not let her in, but then let in other girls who had on more stereotypically feminine attire.

According to a letter dated Jan. 17, 2008 from the ACLU to Bull, staff members made comments to the girl such as, "Remember, you're a girl, not a boy," and, "You can get HIV/AIDS from being gay and messing with females."

School district spokesman Jason Hodge, who coordinated the district's outside investigation, said Hamilton's allegations were found to have no merit.

"People all have different perceptions as to why people are saying things to you or doing things," Hodge said.

Gill said, however, that the investigator did find the district at fault in some allegations, though she would not specify which ones.

Neither Hodge nor Gill would provide the Times-Herald with a copy of the investigation report, citing confidentiality. The Hamiltons said they did not have a copy.

Hamilton transferred to Hogan High School in February 2008, because of the alleged harassment, Gill said. She said she has not experienced any problems at Hogan.

Cheri Hamilton said she wrote several letters to the district, but officials did not respond satisfactorily. Bull said the district is working to improve its complaint reporting procedures.

Gill said even though the district has not admitted liability, the fact that officials agreed to the settlement should say something about their culpability.

"Yes, I believe that these instances happened," Gill said of the alleged harassment by school officials.

Hodge said the agreement puts the district in alignment with other school districts that have adopted clearer harassment and discrimination policies. The settlement also saved the district the expense of going through a lawsuit, Hodge said.

Hamilton and her mother said receiving money was never a motivating factor in pursuing action against the school district, though the payout will help compensate for some of the emotional trauma and the impact on the teen's education.

"It was all about the change," Rochelle Hamilton said, adding she did not have any problems with her peers.

The emotional upheaval of her tenure at Bethel High left Hamilton far behind in credits, she said. She said she was often too depressed to do homework and would cut class because she felt like there was no point since her teachers did not care about her getting an education.

Hamilton said she hopes other kids will see her standing up for herself and be inspired to do the same, including pushing the district to hold up to its end of the agreement.

If the district defaults on the legally binding agreement, the ACLU will sue, Gill said.

Overall, however, Gill said she expects the district will comply with the agreement and that the ACLU is happy officials are changing policies and procedures even without admitting liability.

Contact staff writer Shauntel Lowe at (707) 553-6835 or slowe@thnewsnet.com.