Federal judge raps Fla. principal for treatment of gay students

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

PONCE DE LEON, Fla. — A federal judge scolded a Panhandle school principal, saying the administrator led a “relentless crusade” against gay and lesbian students at Ponce de Leon High School and violated their First Amendment rights.

Student Heather Gillman and the American Civil Liberties Union sued the Holmes County School District, saying that the principal, who has since been replaced, prohibited the teen from wearing gay-pride clothing, stickers and buttons in 2007.

Students, including Gillman, had begun showing support after the taunting of a gay student at school. In response to the taunting incident, Principal David Davis told the gay student it wasn't right for her to be homosexual and held a morality assembly, according to testimony.

He also suspended several students for supporting Gillman, court records show.

A two-day trial was held in May, after which U.S. District Judge Richard Smoak issued an oral order, finding that the school board had violated Gillman's First Amendment rights when it prohibited her from wearing any gay-pride clothing, stickers, buttons or symbols.

Smoak's 36-page opinion in Gillman v. School Board for Holmes County was released July 24.

Smoak ruled that Davis violated Gillman's rights by silencing all pro-gay messages.

“Davis embarked on what can only be characterized as a ‘witch hunt’ to identify students who were homosexual and their supporters,” Smoak wrote.

The principal also interrogated students about their sexual orientations, warned gay and lesbian students to stay away from other students and said that homosexuality was a sin.

“I emphasize that Davis's personal and religious views about homosexuality are not issues in this case. Indeed, Davis's opinions and views are consistent with the beliefs of many in Holmes County, in Florida, and in the country,” Smoak wrote. “Where Davis went wrong was when he endeavored to silence the opinions of his dissenters.”

ACLU officials praised the ruling.

“The atmosphere that was created at the school was so intimidating for these kids,” ACLU public education associate Chris Hampton was quoted by the Northwest Florida Daily News as saying. “It's not about everyone agreeing, it's about being able to disagree respectfully.”

Smoak ordered the school district to pay more than $300,000 in damages.

School Superintendent Steve Griffin said yesterday that Davis is no longer a principal; he now teaches American government classes at the high school. In response to the ruling, all teachers are undergoing sensitivity training this summer, he said.

“We're working on training our teachers on First Amendment rights and free speech,” said Griffin.

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