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Congratulations to Stacy Dawson, a Missouri teenager who challenged his high school's discriminatory policy prohibiting same-sex couples from attending school-sponsored dances, including the senior prom. A day after the Southern Poverty Law Center threatened the Scott County Central School District with a lawsuit on Dawson's behalf, the school district announced that the policy will be rescinded.
As Brody Levesque reported at LGBTQNation, the controversy began last fall when Dawson noticed that the school handbook specifically prohibited same-sex couples from attending school dances. The policy stated, "high school students will be permitted to invite one guest, girls invite boys and boys invite girls."
Dawson asked a staff member for help in getting the policy changed so that he could attend the prom with his boyfriend on April 20. When the staff member reported that the school board would not alter the policy, Dawson decided to ask the Southern Poverty Law Center for help.
In response, Alesdair Ittelson, a staff attorney for the SPLC, sent a "demand letter" to the school district, calling for an end to the "unconstitutional policy and to recognize Stacy's rights without further delay."
The SPLC's letter explained that under the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, the school cannot censor Dawson's protected right to free expression and declared that that it is impermissible for him to be conferred fewer constitutional rights simply because he is gay.
The letter also cited the recent case from Mississippi involving Constance McMillen, McMillen v. Itawamba County School District, where a federal court held that a student's effort to "communicate a message by wearing a tuxedo and to express her identity through attending prom with a same-sex date" was "the type of speech that falls squarely within the purview of the First Amendment and such expression is protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution."
The demand letter gave the school district until February 25 to redress the inequity or the SPLC would file a lawsuit that would ask for damages and attorneys fees as well as a permanent injunction against enforcement of the unconstitutional policy.
As Ittelson told Levesque, "Denying Stacy's right to bring his boyfriend to prom is blatantly discriminatory and in violation of his constitutional rights. This unlawful policy reminds us that anti-gay sentiment still serves as a platform for schools to deny the rights of same-sex couples."
A day after receiving the letter, the school district announced that it would rescind the offensive policy.
Scott County Central School District superintendent Alvin McFerren told the Associated Press on February 15, 2013 that the school board had agreed to revise the policy that had been interpreted to prohibit same-sex dates. McFerren said the policy was adopted 10 to 15 years ago for an innocent reason and was never meant to discriminate.
McFerren said the policy was aimed at trying to stop students from cheating on the entry cost of prom and other dances, since the couples' rate was less expensive than two individual fees.
"When I found out the real, true, innocent reason, we wanted to get that kind of thing corrected," McFerren said. He added that Dawson could attend the prom with whomever he wished.
While somewhat skeptical of the superintendent's explanation, I am nevertheless grateful that the policy will be revised and that Dawson will be able to attend the prom with his boyfriend.
Dawson's courage in challenging the discriminatory policy is commendable.
"Prom is an important milestone in high school, and I'll be devastated if I'm not allowed to attend prom with my boyfriend," he told Levesque. "It isn't fair that a school can randomly disregard students' rights because it doesn't agree with who you want to take to prom."
Ittelson praised Dawson as "a brave and lovely young man" who "encountered this problem, did his research, came to us and said, 'I really want to do something about this,' and we're so proud and honored to be able to fight for his rights in this matter. He has a supportive family and he believes that the other kids at his school want him to be able to attend the prom with his boyfriend."
The school board's quick capitulation on the issue may mean little more than that recent federal court rulings have made it clear that denying equal rights to glbtq students will be costly. But a recent incident in Sullivan County, Indiana may indicate that there has also been a change of heart regarding the rights of gay and lesbian students in the heartland.
When a group of parents were unable to ban gay and lesbian teens from participating with same-sex dates in Sullivan County High School's official prom, they attempted to create an alternate prom that would be "gay-free."
Interestingly, however, the move sparked national outrage. The high school rushed to make clear that it was not in any way involved in the proposals for an alternate prom and to emphasize that all students will be welcome at the official prom.
The church that hosted the anti-gay prom organizers also quickly distanced itself from the controversy. "Our church has no involvement in this whatsoever. It's a community thing where people have met here," Pastor Dale Wise at Sullivan First Christian Church said.
Although a few extreme evangelical sects continue to support the heterosexual-only prom, they are clearly a small minority of the community and they have marginalized themselves with their bigotry.
St. Louis television station KDSK reported on the Sikeston, Missouri controversy as follows.