SIKESTON, Mo. — A school district in southeast Missouri is facing a threat of legal action over a policy that prohibits same-sex couples from attending prom together.
The Southern Poverty Law Center on Thursday accused the Scott County Central School District in Sikeston, Mo., of discrimination and gave the district until Feb. 25 to revise the school dance policy or face a potential lawsuit.
The controversy began last fall when Stacy Dawson, 17, an openly gay student, began investigating whether he would be permitted to his boyfriend to the prom. In reviewing the school handbook, he found that the Scott County Central High School specially allowed only “traditional” couples at the prom, and that school district policy prohibited same-sex couples from attending school dances.
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The policy stated, “high school students will be permitted to invite one guest, girls invite boys and boys invite girls.”
Stacy told LGBTQ Nation on Thursday that he then sought the advice and advocacy of a staff member at the high school to intercede for him with the school board, in hopes that the policy would be rescinded in time to attend the prom on April 20.
But after considerable time had elapsed, Stacy said he went back to the staff member — an unidentified school administrator — and was told the board would not alter the existing policy.
Frustrated, Stacy searched Google to find out what his rights were and how to obtain assistance in his quest to go to prom with his boyfriend, he told LGBTQ Nation.
Stacy said his research led him to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which agreed to assist him.
Alesdair Ittelson, a staff attorney for the SPLC, was assigned to Stacy’s request.
Ittelson told LGBTQ Nation that the SPLC had sent the demand letter to the school district, calling for an end to the “unconstitutional policy and to recognize Stacy’s rights without further delay.”
“Denying Stacy’s right to bring his boyfriend to prom is blatantly discriminatory and in violation of his constitutional rights,” said Ittelson. “This unlawful policy reminds us that anti-gay sentiment still serves as a platform for schools to deny the rights of same-sex couples.”
“I’m doing this for anyone to bring anyone they want to prom,” Stacy told LGBTQ Nation. “I hope that my school and the school board members understand its a wrong policy.”
“Prom is an important milestone in high school, and I’ll be devastated if I’m not allowed to attend prom with my boyfriend,” he said. “It isn’t fair that a school can randomly disregard students’ rights because it doesn’t agree with who you want to take to prom.”
The SPLC’s letter cites that under the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, the school cannot censor Stacy’s protected right to free expression.
That decision explains that students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gates.”
The letter also cites a Mississippi case, McMillen v. Itawamba County School District, where a federal court held that a student’s effort to “communicate a message by wearing a tuxedo and to express her identity through attending prom with a same-sex date” was “the type of speech that falls squarely within the purview of the First Amendment and such expression is protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.”
District superintendent Alvin McFerren declined comment.