This material was created by Campus Progress.
A Tennessee high school student says his principal verbally and physically harassed him because of the T-shirt he was wearing—a homemade shirt showing support for stalled efforts to create a Gay-Straight Alliance at the school.
For months, Chris Sigler—a straight, 17-year-old student at Sequoyah High School whose sister is bisexual and has been subject to bullying—and others have tried to create GSA club but have been blocked by the seemingly discriminatory Principal Maurice Moser, who told the blog Talk About Equality that discussions about forming the club were “disrupting the educational environment.”
Then earlier this month, Sigler wore a T-shirt to school that read: “GSA: We’ve got your back.” Here’s how the ensuing scene reportedly transpired, according to ABC News:
Last Tuesday, a teacher told Sigler to cover up the shirt, but he resisted and wore it again on Friday. Moser ordered all the students out of the classroom, according to the Siglers, except for his sister Jessica, who refused to leave her brother.
Both students allege that Moser then grabbed Sigler’s arm, shoved him and chest-bumped him repeatedly while asking “Who’s the big man now?”
[Mother] Linda Sigler said that when she arrived, Moser was leaning over Chris, “right in his face.”
Sadly, it seems Principal Moser isn’t the only bully at the school. Sigler’s mother told ABC News that when her son wore the homemade T-shirt “kids called him things like ‘queer’ and ‘fag,’ saying making a shirt for gays isn’t right.”
When Sigler sought the support of Moser, he was told the school’s bullies “had freedom of opinion, too,” according to the mother.
Still need more proof that Moser is simply a bigot? Here you go:
- Despite more than 150 student signatures in support of creating a GSA club, Moser banned any such petitions and prohibited students from talking about a GSA club during school hours.
- One of Moser’s stipulations is that the GSA must have a faculty advisor. The students have found three teachers—but all backed out after having private meetings with Moser. According to students, Moser has helped other groups find staff sponsors in the past.
- Moser allegedly told students they could be suspended if they continued to advocate for a GSA club.
And, while Moser’s efforts are clearly discriminatory and offensive, they’re also likely illegal. Under the Equal Access Act, a federal law passed in 1984, public schools are required to permit Gay-Straight Alliance clubs to exist (if they allow any other non-curricular groups) and cannot refuse a group simply because it creates some disruption. [PDF]
A federal judge agreed that school officials “cannot censor the students’ speech to avoid discussions on campus that cause them discomfort or represent an unpopular viewpoint,” in the ruling for Colin v. Orange Unified Sch. Dist. (2000).
The Sigler family is working with the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee, which may file a lawsuit on the students’ behalf.
“Last week’s incident clearly illustrates the hostile environment LGBT students face at Sequoyah High School,” ACLU—Tennessee executive director Hedy Weinberg said in a statement. “Given this context, it’s especially important that supportive voices like Sigler’s can be heard in order to overcome the school’s resistance to a GSA.”
Research by the Gay Lesbian and Straight Education Network [PDF] showed that Tennessee schools had shockingly hostile environments for LGBT students, including that one-fourth of LGBT students had been physically harassed.
Since the incident, more than 86,000 people have signed an online petition at change.org asking for the Sherriff’s Office to investigate. Other groups have launched similar efforts, like the campaign by the Make It Better Project to create videos for principals about the importance of GSA clubs.
It’s hard to dispute the importance of Gay-Straight Alliance clubs—even the U.S. Department of Education champions them as vital for “promoting safer schools and creating more welcoming learning environments”—and no school is more in need than Chris Sigler’s Sequoyah High School.
Hopefully Principal Moser’s supervisors understand that need and help students create a support group. And, while they’re at it, maybe it’s time to find a new principal who is willing to stand up forall students’ rights.
Brian Stewart is a journalism network associate at Campus Progress.
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