To dance, gay teen needs OK of parents

Published December 2, 2004 1:21 am
Principal says: "There's a danger" for the senior to attend the event in West Jordan with his boyfriend
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WEST JORDAN - The story began innocently enough. A high school dance. A teenage romance. And a boy who wanted to attend the event with his boyfriend.

But Jason Atwood, a 17-year-old senior at Copper Hills High, knew better than to show up at the November dance unprepared. He had been openly gay for four years, and his experiences had taught him that peers could be cruel. Screams of "faggot," warnings that he would burn in hell, taunts in the hallway. He had heard it all.

So he asked to see the chaperone list to make sure he and his boyfriend would be watched over. "I was worried about my safety," Atwood said.

And so was the school - which is where the conflict arose.

Principal Tom Worlton, who acknowledged that harassment was an issue in his West Jordan school, told Atwood same-sex couples would need parental permission to attend the dance.

"There's a danger, and I believe the parents ought to be aware of that," Worlton said Wednesday. "If parents were OK with it, I'd make no judgment."

But that extra requirement smacked of discrimination to Atwood. And it kept at least two students away from the dance. One of Atwood's friends - who's not openly gay at home - didn't even try to attend. And Atwood said his father wouldn't sign the permission slip for fear that it would absolve the school of responsibility if anything were to happen to his son.

Liability, however, wasn't the issue in Worlton's mind. An assault at a school dance would weigh on him, he said, as would the cries from parents who might turn around and say: "You knew this was a dangerous situation, and you didn't tell us?"

Dani Eyer, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah, said Worlton's reasoning is off the mark. State law explicitly places the burden on schools to protect students from harassment and promote tolerance, she said.

Eyer added that equal treatment of students means an evenhanded application of policies.

"Would you require a note for a disabled student to go to a dance?" she asked.

Even so, Worlton is not budging. He said his position as principal - this is his sixth year at Copper Hills - gives him wiggle room when it comes to making safety decisions.

"I don't feel like I'm really discriminating," he said. "Unless someone can convince me that it's an unfair policy, we'll live with it."

At Midvale's Hillcrest High last spring, gay students were prevented from wearing anti-smoking "Queers Kick Ash" T-shirts out of fear for their safety.

Atwood takes a different tack. "I've turned my pride shirt inside out, I've hid my rainbows," he said, noting that he never wanted this to be about "making a statement." He just wanted to be a typical teen. A boy having fun with friends at a high school dance.

But the administration's reaction has galvanized him and others to speak out.

Supporters and members of the school's Gay-Straight Alliance - Atwood is a co-chair - banded together in all-day protests this week just off school property. The number of demonstrators has fluctuated, because of the cold, and the reactions from passers-by have run the gamut. Some have emboldened him but others have greeted him with obscenities, snowballs and glares. The bump on his head from a soda can - thrown from a car Wednesday - was a reminder of what he's up against.

"It's something no student should experience, especially in a place where they're supposed to be learning," he said. "But it's something I've been dealing with since I was 13 . . . and I've been raised to stand up for what I believe in."


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