MEMPHIS (Tenn.) – The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has said a public high school principal in Memphis violated two students constitutional right to freedom of association after she posted the names of the two boys on a list of students believed to be couples and revealed their relationship to a variety of people.
In a letter to school board officials in Memphis, Tennessee, the ACLU demanded on Apirl 29 that the school reprimand the principal and take steps to ensure such actions never happen again. The school board has since released a statement saying the principal did nothing wrong (see related story here).
In a press release the ACLU says that in September of 2007, the principal at Hollis F. Price Middle College High told teachers she wanted the names of all student couples, “hetero and homo,” because she wanted to monitor them personally to prevent students from engaging in public displays of affection. The two students now represented by the ACLU, Andrew and Nicholas (who have asked that their last names not be revealed), were two A students who had been seeing each other for a short time and were attempting to keep their relationship quiet and private. The principal heard about them through another student, then wrote their names on a list she posted next to her desk, in full view of anyone who entered her office.
One of the boys’ mothers personally witnessed the list when she met with the principal a few days later. “I couldn’t believe it when I went to meet with the principal and that list was right there by her desk where anyone could see it,” said Andrea, Andrew’s mother. “African American people face enough obstacles to succeeding in this world and I want my son to have every opportunity he’s worked so hard for. Our schools should be helping our children do well, not tearing them down for something like this.”
Although the boys had never been observed by any school staff engaging in any sort of display of affection, the principal called Nicholas’s mother Nichole. According to Nichole, the principal said things like “Did you know your son is gay?” repeatedly and went on to say that she didn’t like gay people and wouldn’t tolerate homosexuality at her school.
Both students say they’ve had to deal with verbal harassment from both teachers and students since word got out around the school about their principal’s actions. According to Nicholas, he also suffered another consequence of the principal’s discrimination. He had submitted extensive paperwork and several recommendations from teachers for a school trip to New Orleans to assist in rebuilding efforts. Having a long history of community service, he was considered a shoo-in to be selected to go before the incident, but then a teacher told Nicholas some faculty were afraid he might “embarrass the school” or engage in “inappropriate behavior.” A few days later, another student who hadn’t even applied to go on the trip was selected in his place.
“We never bothered anyone or did a single thing at school that broke any of the rules,” said Nicholas, a junior and honor student. “Every day I feel like they’re still punishing me, and I’m worried that this is going to hurt my chances to get into a good college.”
“The principal’s outing of these two students to their families, classmates, and teachers is unacceptable. Its only purpose was to intimidate not only these students but all gay students at Hollis Price,” said Hedy Weinberg, Executive Director at the ACLU of Tennessee. “Educators should be focused on educating their students and not on harassing them because of their sexual orientation or the people with whom they associate.”
School officials have already confirmed the existence of the list to the ACLU in prior meetings held in an attempt to resolve the matter privately. In today’s letter to the Memphis City Schools Board of Commissioners, the ACLU points out that the principal ordered the boys not to even walk or study together at school.
“This is a public high school that runs on taxpayer dollars. As such, it is part of the government and must obey the Constitution in dealing with the students entrusted to its care each day,” said Bruce Kramer, a partner at Borod and Kramer in Memphis and cooperating attorney on the case. “This school has no business singling these boys out and taking away educational opportunities against them simply because they were dating.”
The students and their mothers are represented by Kramer as well as Christine Sun of the ACLU’s national Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Project.