Friday, August 22, 2008

Tolerance Remains an Elusive Goal

I'm sure that many of you have read about the Florida high school principal who not only refused to help a student who was being taunted by other students because she was gay, but who actually told her that her sexual orientation was "wrong" and then "outed" that student to her parents, told her to stay away from other students, and then suspended her friends when they wore gay pride shirts and buttons as a sign of support. (See the AP story which has been reprinted numerous places.) I find this story so disturbing on so many levels, I'm not really sure what to address or which element offends me most. So, I'll start at the beginning.

First, I cannot believe that any school official would ever knowingly allow a student to be taunted. Isn't part of the role of the school to protect children? How mad would you be if your child came home and said that she was being taunted at school but the principal wouldn't do anything about it? We'd all be outraged if the principal's reasoning was the student's race or religion; but why are some people willing to treat the student's sexual orientation differently? Is it OK to string a gay man up on a fence post and leave him to die just because he's gay?

While I can understand the principal's desire (although I completely disagree) to set the student "straight" (pun intended), I cannot believe that he would tell her that her lifestyle is "wrong". Sure, if what she was doing was illegal or dangerous then "wrong" might be appropriate, but telling a teenager that being a lesbian is wrong is no better than telling a Jewish student that his religious choice is wrong, telling a Republican that his political affiliation was wrong, or making any pronouncement related to a student's other conscious and personal choices. How offended would you be if your child came home and told you that the principal told her that her religious affiliation or political affiliation was "wrong". Why is her sexual orientation any different?

And I cannot believe that the principal "outed" the student to her parents. I'd be curious to know if he did it out of a sense of moral superiority (as in, "if her parents know, they'll "fix" the problem") or malice (as, in, "if her parents know, they'll beat some sense into her") or xenophobia (as in, "if her parents know, maybe they'll move her out of my school where I won't have to deal with her"). But what right did the principal have to give this type of information to the student's parents? Would you feel differently if the principal told the parents that the student had expressed an interest in a different religious viewpoint or was seen wearing a campaign button for a political party different from the parents' choice? What if the principal told the parents that their daughter's boyfriend was of a different race or different socio-economic class? I'm sure that teachers and school administrators learn private information about students all the time, but so long as that information does not impact upon illegal conduct or poor performance in school, then by what right are the school administrators disclosing that information to the parents?

I'm not even sure how to address the principal's telling the student to stay away from other students. Was he afraid that homosexuality was contagious or that she would rape other kids?

High school is difficult enough for most students, even without worrying about coming to terms with their sexual orientation. But to have the school principal tell you that you're "wrong", tell your parents, and punish your friends...? How much more difficult can life get?

And let's talk about those friends for a moment. I have a hard time believing that there are many principals left in America who aren't somewhat familiar with the limited free speech rights still available to students. Of course, the most famous case dealing with the subject is Tinker v. Des Moines, in which the Supreme Court upheld the right of students to wear black arm bands to protest the Vietnam War. In that case, the Court noted that students do not "shed their constitutional rights when the enter the schoolhouse door." But apparently, the principal at one Florida school was either unfamiliar with this doctrine or simply thought that it didn't restrict his behavior, at least not when the issue was ... gasp ... homosexuality. Once again, can you imagine a principal suspending students for wearing a t-shirt endorsing the politician of their choosing? For wearing a button opposing the war in Iraq or supporting Greenpeace? So how could anyone think that it was OK for the principal to suspend students for simply wearing shirts or buttons to support their friend? I'd be curious to know if the principal stops students from wearing shirts or hats with Confederate flags?

And, if all of that wasn't bad enough, the principal starting asking students whether they were gay or associated with gay students. Apparently, this principal went to the McCarthy school of government administration which conveniently ignores such fundamental concepts as privacy rights and the constitutional right to freely of associate. Of course, all of that pales in comparison to the fact that the principal apparently lifted students' clothing to see if they'd written "Gay Pride" or "GP" on their skin. How would you feel if you learned that the principal at your daughter's school had lifted your daughter's shirt to see if she had written "Obama for President" or "WWJD" on her skin?

Also I can't let the reaction of the citizens of the town go without comment. They are religious people. Fine. They think that homosexuality is wrong. Fine. I'm not telling them that they should change their own particular views, religious or otherwise. They can feel and think however they want about homosexuality. That is one of the joys of America. You are free to be an idiotic, homophobic bigot if you want to. But you cannot force those beliefs upon others. The AP article says that townsfolk feel as if outsiders are forcing beliefs on them. Nothing could be further from the truth. Instead, they are simply being told that they can't force their beliefs on everyone who happens to share their town. Stop for a minute and ask if the situation would be any different if, instead of homosexuality, the issue was race or religion. Would anybody think it OK for the community to burn a cross on the yard of the new black or Jewish neighbors? They don't have to invite the girl over to dinner or let their son or daughter date her. They don't even have to talk to her. But she is still entitled to the same constitutional rights and protections as the rest of the community.

The principal went way beyond what was right, let alone legal. That is terrible. But the support that the townsfolk expressed for his actions is, perhaps, worse, because it demonstrates a complete failure to comprehend constitutional rights, including the right to be different. It is somewhat ironic that this lack of understanding comes to light with regard to the failings of the educational system. It makes me wonder what else the people in that part of Florida have been (or not been) taught. I wonder if they still think that slavery was a good idea?

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