Students at a high school in San Bernardino County are being told they must wear gender-specific attire to prom and for yearbook photos, prompting the ACLU to demand district officials step in to end discrimination against students by teachers and administrators at the school.
In an 11-page letter to Hesperia Unified School District Interim Superintendent David McLaughlin, the ACLU and law firm Nixon Peabody charged that Sultana High School administrators foster a hostile and harassing climate for gay and gender non-conforming students.
Teachers and administrators have made discriminatory comments about gay people, and have not stepped in to stop bullying by students, the ACLU said.
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Kyle Bodda, president of the Sultana Gay Straight Alliance, said the atmosphere has proven distracting to learning.
"All students should feel safe and free to be themselves at school," Bodda said. "I'm hopeful the administration does the right thing and creates a safe environment where we can be ourselves without fear of being harassed."
Levi Smithson-Johnston, a senior at Sultana High School, said the alleged discrimination began last year when students formed a Gay Straight Alliance club on campus.
"It’s saddening that they would even want to discriminate or even try to hide anybody of their sexual orientation or gender," he said.
In a statement, interim superintendent McLaughlin said he was returning to the district from spring break to "personally oversee a thorough examination of this situation.
"These allegations are deeply concerning and they have my full and focused attention," he said. "While the ACLU letter focuses specifically on the rights of gay and lesbian students, I see it as a moral imperative to reinforce the current efforts in place regarding anti-bullying and tolerance throughout the district."
In one incident, a teacher told a student who commented that he did not have a valentine on Valentine's Day, that that's "because you're gay and nobody wants to be with you." In another, an administrator referred to a gay student's campaign for homecoming queen as a "joke." Another teacher told a student to "take the gay headband off."
ACLU's letter states that girls are being told they must wear dresses to the prom and boys must don tuxedos.
"Some female members of (the Gay Straight Alliance) would like to wear tuxedos to prom. Me, myself personally would like to wear tuxedo and heels to prom," Smithson-Johnston said.
A junior at Sultana High School, Amber Stanford said she’d like to see the school’s treatment of LGBTQ and gender non-conforming students "change drastically."
Stanford said she plans on wearing a dress and heels to prom, but has close friends who would be affected by the dress code.
"Any student should be able to wear whatever they want no matter if they are boy or girl because it’s what they feel comfortable in," she said.
Students were also instructed to wear gender-specific attire for their yearbook photos, in violation of state and federal laws, according to the ACLU.
"California law makes it crystal clear schools cannot discriminate against LGBTQ students based on sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression," said Melissa Goodman, ACLU attorney.
Students and lawyers alleged that administrators have censored the Gay Straight Alliance's public announcements, flyers and activities, such as movie screenings.
The ACLU's letter noted that a gay teacher, who was advisor to the alliance, was told she was "a bad fit" after she helped a student file a complaint against a teacher and her contract was not renewed.
The lawyers want written assurances from the district by March 25 that discrimination will end at the school.