Ami Hutchinson, MJIL Staff Member

In June of 2014, 16-year-old Sergio Urrego’s mother, Alba Reyes, filed a complaint with the Secretary of Education of Cundinamarca (the administrative bureau in charge of surveying the quality of education within the territory of Cundinamarca, Colombia).  In her complaint, Alba alleged that her son had suffered persistent and severe discrimination and harassment at his school—Gimnasio Castillo Campestre—due to his sexual orientation.

Earlier that year, after seeing a photo of Sergio kissing a male peer, the school’s administration and teaching personnel launched a discriminatory campaign against him, which included: 1) forcing Sergio to seek psychological help, without which he was forbidden to return to campus; 2) forcing Sergio to accept agreements that demanded he separate from his boyfriend; 3) forcing both young men to come out to their parents; 4) pressuring Sergio’s boyfriend’s family to press criminal charges against Sergio, alleging that he was sexually harassing their son; and 5) filing a report to the Family Commissary (which is run by the District Department for Social Welfare and provides legal and psychological counseling in addition to facilitating legal judgments and mediation), claiming that Sergio’s mother had abandoned him and caused his deviant behavior.

Following months of such treatment, Sergio committed suicide on August 4, 2014.  In response, Gimnasio Castillo Camptestre authorities blamed Alba Reyes and claimed that Sergio was “naturally suicidal, anarchistic, and did not share any love or value for life.”  Shortly thereafter, Alba—with the help of Colombian LGBTI advocacy organization Colombia Diversa—initiated a tutela action (a constitutional mechanism with the objective of protecting human rights) against the school, the General Prosecution of the Nation, the Family Commissary, the Secretary of Education of Cundinamarca, and the Colombia Institute of Family Welfare.

The tutela alleged that the school had disregarded Sergio’s rights to education, free development of personality, equality, privacy and human dignity, and that the other entities had failed to guarantee Sergio’s right to truth, justice and reparation.  Meanwhile, the news of Sergio’s death began a nationwide and internationally heard debate regarding how educational institutions must protect and promote diversity.

Amicus Curiae poured in from around the world.  Notably, Colombia Diversa’s own Executive Director, Marcela Sanchez-Buitrago (a 2014–2015 Humphrey Fellow at the University of Minnesota Law School) worked with students and faculty at the Law School’s Human Rights Centre (including the HRC’s co-director Kristi Rudelius-Palmer and current law students Joy Wang and Ami Hutchinson) to draft and submit a brief to the Constitutional Court.  The Brief analyzed the proceedings and outcomes from Doe et al. v. Anoka-Hennepin School District No. 11—a Minnesota case that resulted in the adoption of a Consent Decree and enactment of the Safe and Supporting Minnesota Schools Law—to outline recommendations for Colombia’s Ministry of Education.

In June of 2015 the Constitutional Court of Colombia ruled in favor of the rights of Sergio Urrego Reyes.  The Court determined that Sergio was the victim of irregular disciplinary actions, harassment, and that the school had violated his rights to a good name and reputation.  The Court directed the Ministry of Education to implement a “policy of safe education coexistence.”  Such a policy must include:

  1. Verifying the creation of a National Committee of Education Coexistence;
  2. The establishment of an Integral Action Route for the Education Coexistence for students who are the victims of school harassment;
  3. Verifying that all schools have internal school committees of coexistence; and
  4. Taking any other actions necessary to overcome the structural failure of the system in the protection of children who are victims of school harassment or bullying.

Additionally, the Court ordered Gimnasio Castillo Campestre to award Sergio a posthumous graduation ceremony, establish a commemorative plaque in Sergio’s name, and, above all, admit their partial responsibility for his death.  The Ministry of Education, in turn, has one year to do “an exhaustive and integral revision” of its Internal Rules (which cover all schools in the country) with the objective of determining which rules are not responsive to the needs of LGBTI students.

For Colombia Diversa and Marcela, as well as those who submitted Amicus briefs, the Constitutional Court’s ruling “honors the memory of Sergio Urrego and recognizes the structural failures of the education system to protect the students from discrimination and harassment due to their sexual orientation or gender identity.”