Originally published: Dec. 17, 2013, 4:50 p.m.
Updated: Dec. 19, 2013, 1:15 p.m.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — A high school club for LGBT and straight students is facing controversy and push back from other students and parents. Local youth advocates who are working to ensure safer schools say the harassment at the school is some of the worst they’ve seen in the local area.
Students at West Lincoln High School in Lincoln County, N.C., formed their gay-straight alliance (GSA) this year. They held their first meeting earlier this semester, but news of a meeting last week prompted conflict and a barrage of harassment on campus and online.
Posters announcing a meeting last Thursday were torn down from hallways. Some students allegedly made other signs saying “Straights Only” that were posted outside of some bathrooms. A six-foot long poster with anti-gay slurs was also allegedly hung in a hallway. Additionally, anti-gay leaflets were left strewn on the campus’ grounds and, over the weekend, the school’s spirit rock was painted with the message “Baggin’ the fags.”
The harassment on campus has extended into the online world, with some students and at least one parent taking to social media to express their disapproval.
“West lincoln high school has been reduced to a liberal agenda following homosexual loving hogs pen that isn’t fit to teach anyone’s children,” reads one message on Twitter from a user whose screen, “20lev13,” invokes a scriptural passage that has been interpreted as calling for the death of LGBT people.
“West lincoln high school has become a Godless school where u can’t speak of God or you’re a outcast but man if your gay and u cuss u fit in,” the user continues. “I hate the fact my kid has to attend WLHS because of all the liberal ways that has easily programmed all those pot smoking little hippies.”
Harassment is extreme
Advocates with Time Out Youth, a Charlotte LGBT youth support and services agency, say the harassment West Lincoln students have faced is among the most extreme the agency has seen.
“This isn’t normal, the extent to which the anti-LGBT sentiment is there,” says Micah Johnson, Time Out Youth’s director of school outreach. “This is the first time we’ve run into where it is just so out there. Even within that county, this is not normal for the [four] high schools in that system.”
Johnson and other Time Out Youth staff have worked with some West Lincoln students in organizing their GSA, especially when it faced difficulties getting started last year.
“It was disbanded,” Johnson says.
Johnson says administrators wanted to fold the Diversity Club into a pre-existing group associated with the Special Olympics.
“They said, ‘You want to diversity, we will do all types of diversity,’ which was not the point of the GSA,” Johnson says.
Johnson and others stepped in to hold conversations with school and district staff. According to federal equal access laws, schools must allow LGBT students to form clubs like gay-straight alliances if a school allows other non-curricular clubs.
“They are at the point now that they know they have to allow the GSA to exist,” Johnson says.
West Lincoln High School’s principal, Dr. Cale Sains, has publicly supported the GSA. In fact, he’s the student group’s faculty sponsor this fall.
Sains tells qnotes he supports the conversation students want to create around issues of diversity and respect.
“I think it is significant that West Lincoln took the step — and the students are the drivers — to establish a GSA club at West Lincoln,” Sains says.
Sains says he’s received more community support than criticism.
“I’ve gotten a lot of emails about how proud people are of West Lincoln establishing a GSA and saying good luck to the students for promoting diversity, awareness and understanding, which is what we want to get to,” Sains says. “We know it is good to move in a direction of a greater appreciation of difference.”
Still, controversy and questions over the club haven’t stopped, though Sains says a large portion of the controversy has subsided, and he and other administrators have addressed the slurs and graffiti by taking disciplinary action where possible.
“When it’s been very clear who did it, then there has been disciplinary action taken,” Sains says. It’s not been easy, Sains says, to identify every student who posted harassing fliers or who painted the spirit rock.
“The rock, there’s no way for us to know, but our reaction as soon as we saw it was to get out there and cover it up,” Sains says.
Johnson says he appreciates Sains and other staffers’ openness, but thinks school leaders can take a stronger, more proactive stand for student safety.
“We are really glad the GSA is there and we are glad the principal has been supportive to the extent that he has been,” he says. “Our main concern is the level of harassment that has escalated since the GSA has been present.”
Rodney Tucker, Time Out Youth’s executive director, says school leaders must take a top-down approach to ending the harassment.
“What we are looking for the principal to do is make a statement to the school and say this behavior is not acceptable and we want it to stop,” Tucker says.
Johnson and Tucker say the several incidences point to a potentially larger school climate and safety issue.
Sains, though, believes much of the reaction has come from a small, vocal minority and “more so on social media than here at school.”
“My honest opinion is that the fury from last week has dissipated, from what I see on campus,” Sains says, noting he heard of no incidents on Wednesday. “The way I’ve handed is that we’ve stayed positive. My message to the GSA is we are going to stay positive. We’re going to promote understanding and diversity and respect and that’s how we are going to handle it.”
One local pastor agrees with Sains and has encouraged students to remain respectful.
Michael White is an associate pastor at Gainsville Baptist Church, just a few miles from West Lincoln High. As controversy erupted on social media, he took to his own Twitter account, saying, “It’s not wrong to stand for biblical truth. It is wrong to do that as proud, arrogant jerks.”
“My conviction is that homosexuality is sinful, but I would also say and have taught my students that homophobia is sinful as well,” White tells qnotes. “Jesus provides us an example of neighborly love for people the mainstream culture would cast out. We should engage even if we disagree with the lifestyle, and we should respond in kindness, respect and love.”
White says Sains is “taking the right approach,” allowing the GSA at a public school and calling for open conversation and dialogue.
“True tolerance,” White says, “is the ability to acknowledge deep and fundamental disagreements, in this case about the morality of homosexuality, but yet still carry on respectful, honest conversation and relationships with one another.”
Time Out Youth’s recent work to ensure safer schools has garnered mostly positive reaction across their seven-county region. In Lincoln County, that work has been more difficult but not impossible.
The group recently completed its year-long project to place safe space kits and educational materials at every middle and high school across the region. Some Lincoln County schools never received the packets, even though they were sent. And, in February, some community members approached the Lincoln County Board of Education to ask leaders to keep the inclusive materials out of schools.
Johnson says despite initial difficulties, administrators and other staff in Lincoln County are responding. For instance, Time Out Youth learned the system hadn’t yet fully implemented anti-bullying policies required by safe schools legislation passed in 2009. That’s now being corrected.
Similar stories and increased support have unfolded across the area, where Time Out Youth has held trainings and meetings reaching over 600 faculty in five out of the seven counties they serve.
“In terms of district relationships, I think that’s where we’ve made the most progress, building relationships at all levels of the system as a resource and as a service provider both in the community and as a resource to their schools,” Johnson says.
He adds, “We always want to assume that educators are well-intentioned and they have a lot on their plates. In these conversations, we still want to allow them to fix it, say we know this is happening, we have resources to help you, let’s work together to fix this.”