April 2010 (To print, click the print icon on your browser
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Mississippi High School Cancels Prom to Avoid Attendance of Gay Student

 

Fulton, MS
 
Itawamba Agricultural High School in Fulton, Mississippi, moved to cancel this year’s prom after a female student requested permission to bring her girlfriend as her prom date and to wear a tuxedo to the event.[1] The student first approached school officials with her request in December 2009, and again in February 2010, just before the school circulated a memo to students outlining prom rules that included a gender-based dress code and a rule prohibiting same-sex couples.[2] Although same-sex prom dates had been banned from the prom in the past, the student hoped the school would honor her First Amendment rights by reconsidering its policy.
 
According to a spokesperson for the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), “same-sex dates and cross-dressing are new issues for many high schools around the country. A lot of schools actually react rather than do the research and find out what the rights of these students are.”[3]
 
After the school refused to grant the high school senior her requests, the student contacted the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which issued a letter to the Itawamba County School District demanding that the student be allowed to bring her girlfriend and wear what she wanted to the prom.[4] District officials then decided to cancel the event, saying they felt it was the best decision “after taking into consideration the education, safety and well being of our students.”[5]
 
In response to the school district’s decision to cancel the prom, the ACLU filed a lawsuit in federal court against the district on behalf of the student. The lawsuit sought a court order for the school to hold the prom; it also requested that the student be allowed to escort her girlfriend, a fellow student, and to wear a tuxedo. The school held to their claim that both requests violated policy.[6]
 
In anticipation of her court date, and in response to the cancelation of the prom, the student advocate’s story drew national attention. She appeared on a number of daytime television talk shows to speak out about tolerance, and even received a college scholarship to honor her bravery. “My daddy told me that I needed to show them that I’m still proud of who I am,” the young woman told the Associated Press. “The fact that this will help people later on, that’s what’s helping me to go on.”[7]
 
While many people across the nation expressed their support, the student was confronted with hostility on the local level. “Somebody said, ‘Thanks for ruining my senior year,’” said the student, who was reluctant to return to school after the cancelation was announced.[8] “I never wanted my classmates to not have a prom—all I wanted was the chance to take the person I care about to prom and enjoy the night like everyone else,” she explained.[9]
 
With disappointment and blame spreading fast at Itawamba Agricultural High School, a parent-sponsored prom was arranged, to be held off school grounds, at the end of March. Following the trial, the federal judge ruled that the school district’s actions violated the student’s constitutional rights, but the judge did not move to reinstate the prom because it was understood that the student would be invited to a prom being held by parents of her Itawamba classmates.[10] The judge wrote that “requiring defendants to step back into a sponsorship [on such short notice] would only confuse and confound the community on the issue.”[11] He said he would hold a trial on the matter later.[12]
 
After the judge’s ruling was announced, a group of about 80 Itawamba parents met to discuss the original parent-sponsored prom which, prior to the trial, had intended to uphold the school’s policy against same-sex dates as well as enforcing the school’s gender-based dress code. After the meeting, a number of parents confirmed that the prom had been canceled, but would not say why.[13] Shortly following the news of the second prom’s cancellation, the school district’s attorney released a statement that the prom would be held at a slightly later date in early April, at a separate location.[14] This time, same-sex couples would be permitted, and students could wear what they wanted.[15]
 
When the student advocate arrived at the privately sponsored prom with her girlfriend, only seven other students, including two students with learning disabilities, were in attendance. It was later confirmed that most of her other classmates from Itawamba Agricultural High School reportedly attended a separate prom that these students were not invited to.[16]
 
In the next steps of the effort to hold Itawamba Agricultural High School accountable for violating the lesbian student’s rights, the legal director for the Mississippi branch of the ACLU said, “We’re still trying to get more information.” At the very least, the low attendance at the dance “will be brought to the court's attention.”[17] SIECUS will continue to monitor the situation.


[1] Shelia Byrd, “Mississippi School Prom off after Lesbian’s Date Request,” ABC News, 10 March 2010, accessed 5 April 2010, <http://abcnews.go.com/US/wireStory?id=10067417>.
[2] Shelia Byrd, “Constance McMillen Prom Lawsuit Heard by Court: Lesbian Teen Wants School Dance for All,” Huffington Post, 22 March 2010, accessed 5 April 2010, <www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/03/22/constance-mcmillen-prom-l_n_508914.html>.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Shelia Byrd, “Mississippi School Sued for Canceling Prom after Lesbian Date Request,” Huffington Post, 12 March 2010, accessed 5 April 2010, <www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/03/11/mississippi-school-sued-f_n_495639.html>.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Chris Kieffer and Alisha Wilson, “Itawamba Prom Off, Then On Again,” Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal, 31 March 2010, accessed 5 April 2010, <http://dailyme.com/story/2010033100002762/itawamba-prom.html>.
[10] “Constance McMillen, Fake Prom? Itawamba Dance Was Kept Secret from Lesbian Teen,” Huffington Post, 5 April 2010, accessed 6 April 2010, <www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/04/05/constance-mcmillen-fake-p_n_525856.html>.
[11] “Gay Teens Misled about Real Prom? Girl in School Lawsuit Attends Dance with Just a Few Others,” MSNBC, 5 April 2010, accessed 5 April 2010. <www.msnbc.msn.com/id/36178446/ns/us_news-life/>.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Kieffer and Wilson, “Itawamba Prom Off.”
[14] Ibid.
[15] “Lesbian, Girlfriend OK for Private Mississippi Prom,” Yahoo News, 30 March 2010, accessed 5 April 2010, <http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20100330/ap_on_re_us/us_lesbian_prom_date>.
[16] “Constance McMillen, Fake Prom?”
[17] “Gay Teens Misled?”