ACLU challenges Little Rock school for harassing gay student

BY Advocate.com Editors

March 14 2003 12:00 AM ET

The American Civil Liberties Union is challenging officials at Little Rock, Ark.'s Jacksonville Junior High School over what it says is repeated punishment of a 14-year-old student for being openly gay. In a letter to school officials sent Thursday, the ACLU demanded that the school stop violating the student's rights and remove all unconstitutional disciplinary actions taken against him from his record by March 21 or face legal action. In its letter, the ACLU said that that school officials "outed" the gay student, Thomas McLaughlin, to his parents against his wishes and have since told him he must not discuss being gay while at school, forced him to read from the Bible, and disciplined him for being open about his sexual orientation.

"My school forced me out of the closet when I should have been allowed to come out to my family on my own terms and when I thought it was the right time," McLaughlin said. "And now the school has been trying to shove me back into it ever since. I'm through with being silenced, and I don't want this happening to other gay kids at my school."

According to the ACLU, McLaughlin's troubles with the school began last year, when a school official called McLaughlin's mother to tell her that her son is gay. McLaughlin, who at that point had come out only to a handful of close friends at school, wasn't ready to tell his parents yet.

"Students should not be punished for being honest about their sexual orientation," said Leslie Cooper, staff attorney with the ACLU's Lesbian and Gay Rights Project. "It's shameful how Jacksonville Junior High School has trampled on Thomas McLaughlin's constitutional rights to intimidate and silence him from being honest about who he is. If this were civics class, the school would be failing."

Now that McLaughlin has become more open about his sexual orientation, he says, the school has made numerous attempts to punish and silence him for being out at school. According to the ACLU:

1. One teacher called a conference with McLaughlin's parents and the principal because she objected to his being open about being gay. During the meeting, the principal concurred that she was opposed to McLaughlin's talking at school about being gay.

2. Another teacher ordered McLaughlin not to discuss his sexual orientation, saying that she found it "sickening," and later called his mother to complain about his homosexuality.

3. School officials preached their religious views on homosexuality and forced him to read aloud from the Bible, in clear violation of the establishment clause of the First Amendment. This was done as punishment after McLaughlin, who is himself a Christian, disagreed with a teacher for calling him "abnormal" and "unnatural."

4. The school suspended him for two days for telling other students about being made to read the Bible in school. The principal and assistant principal also told McLaughlin that if he told any of his friends why he was suspended, they would recommend that he be expelled.

5. In January he was disciplined for talking between classes with a female friend about a boy they both considered "cute." He was disciplined; his friend was not.

"Thomas McLaughlin's school has completely overstepped the boundaries of the law in the way it has treated him," said Rita Sklar, executive director of the ACLU of Arkansas. "School officials have no place trying to convert a student's religious beliefs to their own, and they certainly have no place using religion as a way to punish students."

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