Tennessee School in Hot Water for Telling Teens ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’

Students against LGBT bullying were told to remove nametags displaying their sexual orientation.

Students in Tennessee were reprimanded for putting their sexual orientation on a nametag and wearing it during school. (Photo: AFP/Getty Images)
Suzi Parker is a journalist whose work also appears in The Christian Science Monitor and Reuters.

National Coming Out Day, like Spirit Day celebrated on October 19, has become a teachable moment in United States schools about acceptance and ending homophobic bullying.

But a high school in eastern Tennessee doesn't agree.

On October 11—National Coming Out Day—school administrators stopped Hannah Bradley, president of the Jefferson County High School Gay-Straight Alliance, and other students from wearing nametags that displayed their sexual orientation.

The school received a letter from the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) this week citing that such prohibition is a violation of the students’ rights. If the school doesn’t stop the “misguided practices,” the SPLC will file a federal lawsuit.

More: Power to the Purple: ‘Spirit Day’ Embraces Every Shade of LGBT Acceptance

“Students like Hannah who are courageous enough to take a stand against bullying deserve the school’s support—not censorship and condemnation,” Alesdair Ittelson, an SPLC staff attorney, said in a press release. “Displays of heterosexual orientation are ubiquitous; it is impermissible for school authorities to censor or shame non-heterosexual students for simply declaring who they are.”

SPLC cites the school for acting in violation of Bradley’s First and Fourteenth Amendments and “must immediately cease,” the release said. A letter sent to the school by SPLC must be answered by Oct. 29 and must state that administrators have “ended this unlawful practice.”

Bradley wore a nametag on National Coming Out Day that had the word “demisexual” on it. Demisexual is a person who doesn’t experience sexual attraction unless there is also a strong emotional connection. She encouraged all students, including heterosexual ones, to wear name tags, too.

According to the SPLC document about the case, the school’s principal, Scott Walker, asked her to his office. Another student, who is also a member of the Gay-Straight Alliance, was already in the office as well as the school’s vice principal who Bradley said blocked the office door.

“Principal Walker demanded that they remove their nametags, saying that it was inappropriate to indicate one’s sexual orientation at school,” the SPLC letter to the principal states. “Hannah stated that she would comply with his demand and began to depart, but the Principal insisted that they remove the name tags in front of him before they could leave.”

Bradley said in a SPLC blog post that she “only wanted to end bullying at my high school.”

Jefferson County High School is located in Dandridge, Tenn., population 2,721, and is the second oldest town in the state.

Officials with the school district did not return calls for this story.

In a statement to a Tennessee television station, Walker said, “We respect these young ladies' rights, but felt like it was a disruptive situation for them to ask other students to wear a tag identifying their sexuality.”

The school's website states that its mission is “To prepare responsible productive citizens that are life-long learners.” The website, on its policies page, does not mention bullying.

The SPLC also notes that another student at Bradley’s school was told by a teacher to stop “throwing her sexual orientation in his face” after the student made an announcement about the Gay-Straight Student Alliance. When another student made an announcement about a different group, the teacher said, “At least someone has a real announcement.”

The Tennessee Equality Project supports the students.

The SPLC argues that the students “have the right to express their views freely, so long as their expression does not ‘materially and substantially disrupt the work and discipline of the school.’ ”

The school may be treading in dangerous waters.

“This appears to be a textbook application of the Tinker standard,” says Aaron Taylor, an education law professor at St. Louis University.

The federal case Tinker v. Des Moines changed the face of students' rights when in 1969, the U.S. Supreme Court outlined that students have free speech and defended students' constitutional right.

Taylor says, “The school has an interest in preventing disruptions, but students do not shed their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse door.”

Later cases like Gillman v. School Board for Holmes County addressed sexuality issues. In that case, the court ruled that a school board ban in Ponce de Leon, Fla. on clothing that expressed a student’s sexuality was unconstitutional. In turn, the student received the payment of her legal expenses from the school.

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