How Do I Marginalize Thee? One High School Principal Counts the Ways
& Galen Sherwin, Senior Staff Attorney, ACLU Women’s Rights Project
& Heather L. Weaver, Senior Staff Attorney, ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief
Just how many ways can one public school official violate students' legal rights? The principal of Haywood High School in Brownsville, Tennessee, seems to be going for a record.
At an assembly earlier this month, Principal Dorothy Bond reportedly threatened to expel any gay student who publicly shows affection for members of the same sex. According to students and families who contacted the ACLU, Principal Bond proclaimed that gay students are "not on God's path" and are "going to a bad place." No, the "bad place" is not Haywood High. Rather, as Principal Bond made clear to a lesbian student she earlier singled out for displaying affection for her girlfriend, Principal Bond believes that gay students are "going to hell." Principal Bond also allegedly interfered with efforts to establish a Gay-Straight Alliance at Haywood High and may have prevented students in same-sex relationships from attending the school prom as couples.
But that's not all. At the same assembly, Principal Bond reportedly dismissed all male students and then launched into a rant about teenage mothers and pregnant students, declaring that they end up "jobless, homeless, and living off the government" and that "life is over" for a high school girl who gets pregnant.
And the recent assembly is not the first time that Principal Bond has imposed her religious views on students. Official prayer and proselytizing have been incorporated into a variety of school events. On one occasion, after a serious car accident affected the school community, Principal Bond gathered students in the cafeteria to pray. Administrators allegedly scolded those students who did not bow their heads to participate and threatened them with disciplinary action.
In a letter sent today on behalf of students and families, the ACLU and the ACLU of Tennessee detailed how these comments, policies, and practices could violate a plethora of statutory and constitutional rights, including students' rights to free speech, expression, and association; their rights to privacy and equal protection under the law; their Establishment Clause rights to remain free from governmental imposition of religion; and their rights under Title IX, a federal law that prohibits public schools from discriminating on the basis of sex or sex stereotypes and requires schools to create a safe, harassment-free environment for students.
All students, regardless of sex, sexual orientation, parenting status, or faith, should feel safe and welcome in our public schools. By now, all public school officials should understand and support this basic notion of fairness and equality. But when they have failed to get the message, the ACLU will be there to remind them and fight to protect students' rights, just as we are doing now in Brownsville, Tennessee.