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Parents: School no place for gay issues

Some Newsome High School students want to form a gay-straight club, but a couple is trying to stop it before it starts.

By S.I. ROSENBAUM
Published September 13, 2005


LITHIA - Two weeks ago, Mike Dorris found out from his 15-year-old daughter that students at Newsome High School wanted to start a Gay-Straight Alliance.

Ever since then, he has been trying to prevent the club for gay students and their straight supporters from forming.

Dorris and his wife, Kari, have called and e-mailed everyone from Newsome principal Rebecca Anderson to school superintendent MaryEllen Elia, voicing worries about a club where students would discuss sexual issues.

The couple also have turned to their conservative and politically powerful church, Bell Shoals Baptist in Brandon, for help. The church's issues committee has been weighing what to do, but hasn't made a decision yet.

"I am not comfortable with my tax dollars being used to sponsor this club," Dorris said in an interview.

Students should discuss sexual-orientation issues with their families, or with psychologists, not with their peers in a school-sanctioned club, Dorris said.

The couple wants the club to meet after school hours and off school grounds. They also say it should not have a faculty adviser.

The controversy comes two months after the Hillsborough County Commission banned county government from recognizing any gay pride events. The Commission's move angered gay-rights supporters nationwide and raised the question: Should gay people receive the same sort of protection and acceptance as other minority groups?

Rather than try to quash a gay-straight alliance, Nadine Smith, executive director of Equality Florida, said parents should "be offended at the fact that these students have to deal with harassment ... that they had to go the extra effort to create a safe learning environment for themselves."

If the Dorrises get their way, it would mean that the Newsome Gay-Straight Alliance club would not be a club at all.

According to school rules, a club must meet at school, during school hours, with a faculty adviser present, the principal said.

Otherwise, Anderson said, "They wouldn't be a club."

Under federal law, she said the school must treat all proposed student clubs equally.

"You don't encourage, you don't disallow it," Anderson said.

Elia, the superintendent, could not be reached for comment Monday.

Anderson stressed that the Newsome Gay-Straight Alliance doesn't even exist yet at the school, which is in FishHawk Ranch.

Some students have talked with an assistant principal about forming the club and have secured a faculty adviser, she said. But there are many other steps the students need to make: get at least 20 students signed up for the club, draw up a constitution, create a budget, and organize plans for meetings.

The school will hold its first "Club Day" - the one day a month given over to student clubs - on Wednesday, she said. Until then, Anderson said, the club can't exist.

If any clubs prove "disruptive," she said, the school would deal with that on a case-by-case basis.

Dorris said he is concerned that a gay club would be disruptive.

"The only example I have is what happened in Bloomingdale in April," he said.

At that high school, students starting a Gay-Straight Alliance observed a national "day of silence" meant to draw attention to gay-rights issues. The students wore signs explaining their silence.

The next day, another group of students came to school wearing anti-gay slogans on their clothes as a counterprotest. The original protesters retaliated the following day with more slogans.

Administrators found themselves in the middle of a silent war.

Gay clubs have been controversial in schools across the country. In August, White County High School in northern Georgia banned all nonacademic clubs, in order to do away with its nascent Gay-Straight Alliance.

"This tends to be a divisive issue," Dorris said. "It's very polarizing to the student body and disruptive to academics."

It would be better, he said, to have an all-inclusive "tolerance" club.

"If we're building this tolerance and love and respect for each other, let's broaden it beyond sex," he said.

It's not clear how many schools in Hillsborough have Gay-Straight Alliances. School district spokesman Stephen Hegarty said attempts have been made to start such clubs at four high schools: Tampa Bay Tech, Blake, Bloomingdale and Brandon; but he said he isn't sure if the clubs were successful.

Smith, of Equality Florida, said that it's important for gay students to have a resource specifically for them.

"Homophobic slurs are the most common on campuses," said Smith. "I would have loved to have had a gay-straight alliance, a place where I could get support for that kind of harassment."

Dorris, however, said gay students already have resources in the school's guidance counselors and other support staff. If students are being harassed, he said, it's the administration's responsibility to deal with it.

"I wasn't aware we had a tolerance issue," he said. "And if there is, maybe the administration is not doing what they need to be doing in terms of identifying the trouble makers and dealing with them."

--S.I. Rosenbaum can be reached at srosenbaum@sptimes.com or at 813 661-2442.