ACLU Warns Arkansas School to Stop Persecuting Gay Student

March 13, 2003

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

JACKSONVILLE, AR -- The American Civil Liberties Union is challenging officials at Jacksonville Junior High School over repeated punishment of a 14-year-old student for being openly gay. In a letter to school officials sent today, the ACLU demanded that the school stop violating the student's rights and remove all unconstitutional disciplinary actions taken against him from his record by March 21 or face legal action.

In its letter, the ACLU said that school officials "outed" the gay student, Thomas McLaughlin, to his parents against his wishes and have since told him he must not discuss being gay while at school, forced him to read from the Bible and disciplined him for being open about his sexual orientation. 

"My school forced me out of the closet when I should have been allowed to come out to my family on my own terms and when I thought it was the right time. And now the school has been trying to shove me back into it ever since," McLaughlin said. "I'm through with being silenced, and I don't want this happening to other gay kids at my school." 

McLaughlin's troubles with the school began last year, when a school official called McLaughlin's mother to tell her that her son was gay. McLaughlin, who at that point had only come out to a handful of close friends at school, wasn't ready to tell his parents yet.

To "out" a young person to his or her parents is more than a mere overstepping of boundaries -- it can have tragic consequences, such as when a Pennsylvania youth heard a similar threat from police officers in 1997 and committed suicide rather than face what he feared would be rejection from his family. In that case, a federal appeals court has held that threatening to disclose private information violated the teenager's constitutional right to privacy. Fortunately for McLaughlin, his parents were accepting and understanding, avoiding such tragedy.

"Students should not be punished for being honest about their sexual orientation," said Leslie Cooper, staff attorney with the ACLU's Lesbian and Gay Rights Project. "It's shameful how Jacksonville Junior High School has trampled on Thomas McLaughlin's constitutional rights to intimidate and silence him from being honest about who he is. If this were civics class, the school would be failing."

Now that McLaughlin has become more open about his sexual orientation, the school has made numerous attempts to punish and silence him for being out at school:

  • One teacher called a conference with McLaughlin's parents and the principal because she objected to his being open about being gay. During the meeting, the principal concurred that she was opposed to McLaughlin talking at school about being gay.   
  • A different teacher ordered McLaughlin not to discuss his sexual orientation, saying that she found it "sickening," and later called his mother to complain about his homosexuality.   
  • School officials preached their religious views on homosexuality and forced him to read aloud from the Bible in clear violation of the establishment clause of the First Amendment. This was done as punishment after McLaughlin, who is himself a Christian, disagreed with a teacher for calling him "abnormal" and "unnatural."   
  • In violation of McLaughlin's free speech rights, the school suspended him for two days for telling other students about being made to read the Bible in school. The principal and assistant principal also told McLaughlin that if he told any of his friends why he was suspended, they would recommend that he be expelled.    
  • McLaughlin is not even allowed to participate in typical teenage conversations about crushes. In January he was disciplined for talking between classes with a female friend about a boy they both considered "cute." He was disciplined; his friend was not. 

"Thomas McLaughlin's school has completely overstepped the boundaries of the law in the way it has treated him," said Rita Sklar, Executive Director of the ACLU of Arkansas. "School officials have no place trying to convert a student's religious beliefs to their own, and they certainly have no place using religion as a way to punish students." 

The case is being handled by the ACLU's Lesbian and Gay Rights Project and attorney Kathy Hall of Little Rock. 

The following is the text of the ACLU letter to school officials: 

 

March 13, 2003

By Facsimile and Federal Express

Dr. Donald J. Henderson

Interim Superintendent

Pulaski County Special School District

P.O. Box 8601/925 East Dixon Road

Little Rock, Arkansas 72216

(Fax- 501- 490-0483)

Re: Thomas N. McLaughlin.

Dear Dr. Henderson,

We represent Thomas N. McLaughlin ("Thomas"), a 9th grader at Jacksonville Junior High School, and his parents, Delia and Thomas W. McLaughlin. 

We have been advised by our clients that Thomas, who is gay, is being prohibited by school officials from being open to his peers in school about his sexual orientation, and that he is being subjected to a range of unconstitutional conduct aimed at silencing him.

Specifically, our clients have advised us:

i) that Thomas has been prohibited by school administrators and teachers from discussing his sexual orientation with others and that he has been disciplined for doing so;

ii) that Thomas has been prohibited by school administrators and teachers from discussing with other students discipline that he has received from school officials, and has been further disciplined for doing so; 

iii) that Thomas was discriminated against based on his sexual orientation with respect to discipline by school administrators and teachers;

iv) that an assistant principal disciplined Thomas by subjecting him to religious preaching about homosexuality and by making him read the Bible with him in his office;

v) that teachers, in their classrooms and during the school day, made Thomas listen to religious preaching about homosexuality; 

vi) that last year, when Thomas was in the 8th grade, school officials disclosed Thomas' sexual orientation to his parents over his objection, with no legitimate basis for doing so.

These acts on the part of school administrators and teachers amount to violations of myriad constitutional rights, including Thomas' rights to free speech, equal protection and privacy. And of course the establishment clause prohibits public school personnel from requiring students to read the Bible and listen to religious preaching during school time. Moreover, preaching religious views inconsistent with the religious values his parents seek to instill in him violates their right to parental autonomy protected by the 14th Amendment.

Pursuant to the school district's appeal procedures, we appeal to you all the restrictions on Thomas' speech, the discriminatory discipline that he received, the unwanted religious preaching, and the unauthorized disclosure of facts that were private. Moreover, we demand that Thomas' school record be expunged of all disciplinary records resulting from these unconstitutional acts.

We further demand that this unconstitutional conduct cease immediately. We require assurances that the responsible officials will act to prevent any further violations and instruct all school personnel that such conduct will not be tolerated. Specifically, we demand your assurance that:

i) students will not be prohibited from discussing their sexual orientation during non-instructional time; nor will they be disciplined for doing so;

ii) students will not be prohibited from discussing during non-instructional time discipline they receive from school officials; nor will they be disciplined for doing so;

iii) school personnel will not discriminate against students on the basis of sexual orientation in disciplining students;

iv) school personnel will not make students read the Bible or force them to listen to religious preaching on school premises during school hours; and 

v) school personnel will not disclose any student's sexual orientation to others without his or her consent absent a compelling reason for doing so.

We request expedited consideration of the internal appeals. But rectifying the actions of the teachers and administrators involved in these constitutional violations cannot await the outcome of those appeals. If the school district has not assured us by March 21, 2003, that its teachers and administrators will cease violating students' constitutional rights as detailed above, and that Thomas' disciplinary records have been corrected, we will commence a court action seeking preliminary injunctive relief, and all other relief available to our clients.

We are fully prepared to discuss this matter with you or your designee but need a prompt response. 

 

Sincerely,

Leslie Cooper

ACLU Foundation

125 Broad Street, 17th Floor

New York, NY 10004 

Rita Sklar

ACLU of Arkansas

904 West Second Street, Suite One

Little Rock, AR 72201

 

cc: Board of Education, Pulaski County Schools

Karl Brown, Assistant Superintendent for Equity and Pupil Services 

Principal Brenda Allen

Assistant Principal Emanuel McGhee

Assistant Principal Sharon Hawk

Ms. Linda Derden 

Ms. Joan Blann

Ms. Jessica Geurin

Ms. Jimmie Brooks

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