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After years of brutal bullying at school, Jamie Nabozny fled his hometown in northern Wisconsin and along the way made legal and human-rights history.

Nabozny grew up poor in Ashland, where he, his parents, siblings and grandfather lived in an old farmhouse. His dad was a seasonal construction worker, his mother a stay-at-home mom.

And Nabozny is gay, which made him the target of physical and verbal attacks at school. He was beaten and urinated upon, and some boys pretended to rape him. One boy kicked him in the stomach so ferociously that he had to have surgery.

There was no help from school officials, and Nabozny was hospitalized several times after suicide attempts.

Ultimately, he ran off to Minneapolis and found himself homeless, Nabozny said in a speech Monday at the University of Utah's S.J. Quinney College of Law.

He found the gay-oriented Metropolitan Community Church and places to stay. He also talked to a counselor who suggested that he sue his high school. With the help of an attorney, he did, but a federal judge dismissed the case.

That's when Lambda Legal, which takes cases for gays, lesbians and people with AIDS/HIV, came into Nabozny's life. Its lawyers wanted to appeal the decision, saying, "It's not likely we'll win, but we have to set an example."

"I said, 'sign me up,' " Nabozny said, a decision that involved intense preparation for trial in a federal appellate court in Chicago.

"We'd spend four to 12 hours in the office going over school and medical records" that filled 18 legal boxes, he said. Although an administrator had burned his records, a school counselor had presciently copied them before then.

Meanwhile, the principal lawyer in a major Chicago law firm joined the legal team and ultimately came out as a gay man living with HIV/AIDS.

Finally, it was time for trial. The judge began proceedings the Monday before Thanksgiving in 1996 and insisted it would be finished by Wednesday.

One of his tormenters and now witness, Ray, arrived in orange prison garb and shackles; he'd been sent to prison for beating a gay man. Ray's mother also testified, and both told the truth about his role in the bullying, Nabozny said.

Finally, the jury began deliberations and returned within an hour. The Chicago lawyer told everyone not to show any emotion, then wept when the jury found three school administrators liable.

The Ashland School District was not, but after a lengthy negotiation, it settled with Nabozny for $900,000 — enough for his legal fees and $220,000 in medical bills.

It was the first time a court found that a public school could be held accountable for not stopping anti-gay abuse, according to Lambda Legal.

Still, there's so much more to do, said Nabozny, who was named a Defender of Human Rights by the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights. He travels the country, spreading his message at schools and other venues.

He wants to see outreach not only to victims, but also to the bullies and the bystanders who just let it happen.

"One student changed the school system by standing up and telling what happened," he said.

Nabozny also is the subject of the documentary "Bullied: A Student, a School and a Case That Made History"; 90,000 copies are being distributed to schools.

"Words will kill you from the inside out," he said. "You don't want to live anymore. Words, the verbal harassment, hurt worse than the physical abuse."

Peg McEntee is a news columnist. Reach her at, and Twitter: @Peg McEntee.