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Bigotry and Rage: The Making of an Indiana Prom

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Two weeks ago, an Indiana special education teacher spoke up about holding an "alternative prom" without same-sex couples. Her derisive comments about homosexuals drew ire from all corners, resulting in criticism, anger, and confusion.

The collective response shows how swiftly the Internet takes up causes, but with all the grace and coordination of a concussed hippopotamus.

Let's start at the beginning.

The Northeast School Corporation of Sullivan County, Ind., like many school districts, holds a prom every year. The prom at the corporation's North Central Jr./Sr. High School allows all students to attend, without regard to sexual orientation. Sullivan High School, also in Sullivan County, but part of the Southwest School Corporation, has the same policy.

Not all high schools in the United States have allowed same-sex couples to attend prom, which at least one federal judge has found unconstitutional. But the Sullivan County high schools in question do not have discriminatory policies.

The lack of discrimination at Sullivan High School bothered a group of community members. They held a meeting at a local church to discuss organizing a prom open only to heterosexual students.

At that meeting, Diane Medley, a Northeast special education teacher, was asked by a local reporter whether, "for a gay person, do you think they have some sort of purpose in life?" Medley responded, "I don't. I personally don't, I'm sorry. I just, I don't understand it."

That interview circulated quickly, as so many things do, and elicited widespread rebuke. Because Medley works at a different school than the one which spurred the initial call for an alternative prom, confusion ensued as well.

Southwest School Corporation would like everyone to know it does not employ Medley, and, again, prom is and has been open to everyone.

Northeast superintendent Mark A. Baker published a statement Feb. 14 condemning Medley's views:

I cannot emphasize enough the extent to which we are dismayed and disappointed with the statements made by a school employee who was expressing her own opinions as she attended a meeting outside of school or a school activity.

At the same time, Baker said, the school recognized that each employee has "some protection to express his or her opinion."

He also recognized the right of others to express countervailing opinions. The Internet has obliged.

A change.org petition started recommending Medley's removal. A Facebook page went up showing support for Sullivan High School's prom.

The Northeast administration also received "aggressive email messages," according to a follow-up statement issued this past Wednesday by Baker, in which he also announced that the school had placed Medley on administrative leave out of safety concerns. Part of that comes as some of Medley's critics seem unsure about the school's position, thinking that the real school prom is the one discriminating against same-sex couples. The school is also adding police security due to threats. That could be frustrating to those among Medley's detractors who already worry she'll become a martyr.

Meanwhile, the church that allowed Medley and others to have their meeting hasn't been unscathed, either. In a blog post, the daughter of the church's receptionist told of how her mother has had to field an outpouring of rage since the attention began. The church's fax machine was sent a "constant flow of gay pornography ... The staff's inboxes were flooded with thousands of pornographic images and messages."

That's an important distinction, not just for truth's sake, but also because different rules govern the schools. In Northeast, Section 3310 of the corporation's bylaws and policies governs faculty speech outside of the school. It directs that faculty should:

A. State clearly that his/her expression represents personal views and not necessarily those of the school corporation.

B. Refrain from expressions that would disrupt harmony among co-workers or interfere with the maintenance of discipline by school officials.

C. Refrain from making public expressions which s/he knows to be false or are made without regard for truth or accuracy.

D. Not make threats against co-workers, supervisors, or corporation officials.

Violators can be disciplined, and may face termination. Considering the school's position is well-known, that Medley thinks she's correct, and that she's not threatening other employees, Rule B would ostensibly govern if she's crossed the line.

Alternatively, Medley could face discipline if the school board finds that her statements outside the classroom have sufficiently interfered with her work inside the classroom, per the corporation's anti-harassment policies. That she's been placed on administrative leave suggests such an interference exists, but again, that's up to the board.

At the moment, though, the leave hasn't been declared disciplinary, so it's not exactly a victory for principle.

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