Thursday, November 1st, 2012
Pro-gay shirts controversial at Celina school
By Eric Adams
Celina High School students Bethany Holbrook, left, and Jimmy Walter were asked. . .
CELINA - A group of Celina City Schools students say its unfair that administrators will not allow them to wear T-shirts with pro-gay sentiments while others are allowed to wear political shirts and pro-life messages.
Students reached out to several media outlets after recent events and have been contacted by an equality activist.
Administrators first objected to students Bethany Holbrook, a freshman, and Taylor Walter, a junior, wearing T-shirts openly expressing their homosexuality during "twin day" last week. The girls were forced to take off the shirts, which said "lesbian 1" and "lesbian 2," along with other general pro-gay statements.
Assistant principal Phil Metz said the shirts posed a distraction to learning.
"A shirt like that draws undue attention," he said this week. "We're here to focus on academics, not choices in sexuality."
Walter and Holbrook opposed Metz's decision, saying their shirts posed no more of a distraction than those many students wore endorsing right to life and other political causes.
As a response to the administrative action, Walter's younger brother, Jimmy, supplied hand-made T-shirts sporting a rainbow to approximately 15 students who wore them Tuesday. Messages on the shirts included "straight but supportive" and "I have the right to express my love."
Metz again told the students to remove their shirts; no punishment was given.
Metz cited potential negative backlash as a reason for disallowing the rainbow shirts.
"If we were to have a student who says, 'if they can be supportive, why can't I be against?' That would definitely cause a disruption," he said. "I think the reason they made the shirts was to draw attention (away from the focus of the classroom)."
Junior Erick Warner, who did not wear a shirt but is supportive of the effort, said Metz established a double standard.
"If I was in class, I would be more distracted by a fetus on a person's shirt than a rainbow," he said, making reference to pro-life T-shirts. "They should be able to have it all, or they shouldn't have any of it."
Newly-hired superintendent Jesse Steiner said teachers had complained to administrators about the shirts, but he would not name those teachers.
"There's a limit to what we can (say) about student discipline," he said. "This is not a statement about pro-life (or) a statement about gay rights, it's a dress code issue."
The high school dress code says school dress should ensure the health, welfare and safety of the student body and enhance a positive image of the school. Any form of dress or grooming that attracts undue attention or violates the previous statement is unacceptable.
The code also says unacceptable clothing, such as those with sexual, vulgar or violent innuendoes, could result in school officials asking students to change clothing.
"Decisions we make are educational in nature," high school principal Jason Luebke said. "This is about making sure that we remain excellent (on the state report card) and that students are achieving in the classroom."
Warner this week posted what happened on Reddit, a popular Internet site that tracks trends and events. Since then, he said he has been contacted by a state representative who requested anonymity and a screen printing employee who offered to provide the students with professionally-made T-shirts. A reporter with U.S. News and World Report also contacted the students and published an online story Wednesday.
"(My post) was getting like 11 comments a second," Warner said. "When I feel strongly about something, I'm willing to pursue it until I feel like it's right."
The U.S. News story said "both sides are now consulting lawyers" and implied the matter would likely be heard in court.
School board vice president Matt Gilmore, also an attorney, dispelled these claims.
"I have no idea where that came from," he said. "We have been briefed on the situation ... my understanding is that the issue has been resolved."
The matter has not yet risen to board-level action, he said.
Jimmy Walter did say he received a Facebook message from equality activist Andrew Reese, who said he was contacting ACLU Senior Law Clerk Drew Dennis. It is not known whether Dennis is looking into the situation.
The Ohio Department of Education makes "model" policies for student dress codes but leaves the details to local boards of education, ODE spokesman John Charlton said.
"We're a local control state, which means each board of education controls their own school system and sets their own policies," he said.
ODE's position is spelled out in Ohio Revised Code 3313.665, he explained.
When asked if the state agency would support Celina schools' board and administrators if the ACLU became involved, he said no.
"We would not want to wade into that," Charlton added.
Dakota Sawmiller, a senior and friend to Warner, said students have circulated a list gathering names of students who would wear shirts again in the future.
Steiner did not specifically say students wearing the shirts again would be disciplined, but he remarked that any persistent disruption of academics is subject to punishment as outlined in the high school code of conduct. These measures progress from warnings to detentions, and eventual removal from class and suspension.