The Associated Press yesterday reported that cheering broke out when Desiree Shelton and Sarah Lindstrom made their entrance in the Snow Days processional at Champlin Park High School as a couple.
So much for all of the discomfort school administrators predicted last week when they told the pair of 18-year-olds they couldn’t walk together in the procession, even though they had been elected to the school’s Snow Days Week Royalty Court. Instead, the school planned to have all 12 elected royals walk with a teacher, parent or other “significant adult.”
Shelton and Lindstrom, who are a couple, Friday filed a motion in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis seeking to force the school to let them march as planned. On Saturday, Anoka-Hennepin Public Schools, much in the news over the last six months because of GLBT-related controversies, agreed.
A fairly hefty pile of case law backed the students’ position, according to Amy Goetz, founder of St. Paul’s School Law Center. And it might have helped that, harnessing the power of the Internet, the two young women enlisted the legal services of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, the Southern Poverty Law Center and Faegre & Benson.
As controversy has engulfed the district in the wake of several student suicides, critics have repeatedly argued that Anoka-Hennepin’s policy of “curricular neutrality” regarding gay and lesbian topics is at the heart of the problem. The district may have a stated anti-bullying policy, but it gets undercut when administrators declare neutrality, rather than support, for an entire class of students, they say.
“They’ve adopted these very horrible policies that have left administrators and teachers feeling powerless to do anything to protect gay and lesbian youth,” said Goetz.
On this point, the conversations with school administrators Shelton described in an affadavit [PDF] filed with the court speak volumes. Shelton campaigned for the Royal Court specifically because she was troubled by the suicides of GLBT students and thought seeing a same-sex couple in the processional would lift her classmates’ morale.
Shelton enlisted some other lesbian students to run as well. When both she and her girlfriend were elected, they asked two male members of the court if they would mind walking in the procession together.
Last Tuesday, a teacher stopped the pair in the hall and told them it wasn’t going to happen, and that they would be called to the principal’s office to hear details. In fact they met twice with Principal Michael George, Assistant Principal Mathew Mattson and a number of teachers, on Wednesday and again on Thursday, after George had consulted with the superintendent.
George told the seniors that he was concerned about the reactions the rest of the student body would have to two women walking as a couple, as well as the parents of the young men who had agreed to walk together. Indeed, there is plenty in the record suggesting that the administrators did in fact think they were acting in the couple’s best interest and trying to ensure a safe school community.
“Mr. Mattson suggested that even if the male students stated that they were comfortable with the decision now, they may not be three months from now when a picture of them processing together surfaces and rumors get started that they are gay,” Shelton stated. “Mr. Mattson hypothesized that they might then get bullied, commit suicide and their parents would blame the school district.
“Mr. George also stated that at a school board meeting on Jan. 24, a number of parents praised the school board for keeping the gays out of the schools and were otherwise hostile toward gays and lesbians,” the affidavit continued. “Mr. George suggested that this caused him to have concerns about student safety if he allowed Sarah and me to process into the Pep Fest together.”
According to the motion for an emergency hearing filed on behalf of the women, similar cases have resulted in pretty clear law on this point:
Schools cannot protect students — in one directly relevant case, by preventing two gay young men from attending prom together because one had been the target of anti-GLBT violence — by silencing them.
“To permit such actions even in the name of safety or good order ‘would completely subvert free speech in the schools by granting other students a heckler’s veto,'” the motion asserts. School administrators “here have stated their intention to suppress the [students’] expression precisely in order to grant other students the heckler’s veto.”
Heckler’s veto is such a nice turn of phrase, isn’t it? So much more to the point than “bullying-induced climate of fear” or “fear that a lynch mob will hold a recall if the board renews the superintendent’s contract.”
If the cheering that broke out when Champlin Park’s latest group of royals kicked off Snow Days is any indication, the place where the heckler’s veto is being wielded to most dangerous effect is not at the school level.