Tenn. Principal Allegedly Assaults Student Wearing Gay T-Shirt
Rights watchdogs organizations have responded to an alleged incident in which a high school principal reportedly assaulted and verbally harassed a student for wearing a gay-supportive T-shirt.
The ACLU and the Human Rights Campaign have both reacted to incidents in Monroe County, Tennessee, arising from students at a high school working to establish a Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA).
The alleged assault took place in late September at Sequoyah High School. An Oct. 4 ACLU press release said that the student, a 17-year-old senior, "was reportedly shoved, bumped in the chest and verbally harassed by his principal last week for wearing a T-shirt in support of efforts to establish a gay-straight alliance (GSA) club on campus."
Previous to the alleged assault the principal, Maurice Moser, had allegedly warned other students that continued efforts to establish the GSA would result in their suspensions. Students gathering signatures on two petitions, one in favor of the GSA and one opposed, were all told to stop or face disciplinary action.
The student who Moser allegedly assaulted, Chris Sigler, had written the motto "GSA: We've Got Your Back" on a T-shirt he wore to school. The first day he wore the shirt, Sigler was ordered by a teacher to cover the message. But Sigler wore the shirt again later in the week because it was his understanding that he had a First Amendment right to do so.
When Sigler refused to cover the shirt's slogan, "Moser then ordered all students out of the classroom, except for Sigler's sister Jessica, who refused to leave," the ACLU reported Sigler claiming.
"According to both students, Moser then grabbed Sigler's arm, shoved him, and chest-bumped him repeatedly while asking, 'Who's the big man now?' Sigler's mother reported that when she arrived at the school, she saw her son seated in a desk with Moser leaning over him and shouting in Sigler's face. The Siglers filed a report about the incident that afternoon with the Monroe County Sheriff's Department."
"It is totally unacceptable that a young man who was peacefully exercising his First Amendment rights would have his speech shut down by the public school principal," the head of the ACLU's Tennessee chapter, Hedy Weinberg, said, going on to say that the "incident clearly illustrates the hostile environment LGBT students face at Sequoyah High School.
"Given this context, it's especially important that supportive voices like Sigler's can be heard in order to overcome the school's resistance to a GSA," added Weinberg.
"All I want is to have a GSA at my school to help stop the bullying against gays and lesbians and their friends who support them," the young man said. "The shirt was a way to use my voice and show my support for the club. The way I was treated shows even more why we need a GSA here."
Sigler is heterosexual, ABC News reported. His sister is bisexual. The ABC News article reported on Sigler's intentions, saying that he told his mother, "I don't want to go to a funeral of any friends."
One openly gay student, Nathan Carroll, told the media that he and other gay students were bullied. He described how the school's athletes would scream out religiously-based anti-gay slurs, and said that those opposed to the GSA attempted to characterize it in a misleading way.
"The Gay Straight Alliance is not a club to talk about sexual orientation," Carroll told the local media. "It's about sexual orientation, but it's not talking about sex in general. It's a support group. It's where you can go and you can talk about how you feel."
The Human Rights Campaign said in an Oct. 19 media release that the students were not the only ones subjected to bullying at the school, reporting that "fair-minded faculty members originally willing to sponsor the group's formation have been intimidated into silence."
"The reports of homophobia in Monroe County, Tennessee, are shocking," the head of the HRC, Joe Solmonese, said. "Students should feel safe in their schools.
"For a principal allegedly to assault a student who is defending the rights of his LGBT peers is not only irresponsible and dangerous, but a complete dereliction of his leadership obligations. And faculty members willing to sponsor a GSA should feel free to do so without threat of any kind of retribution from those above them."
"The formation and operation of GSAs are protected under the Federal Equal Access Act of 1984," the release noted, before adding, "Law enforcement officials in Madisonville say no charges are likely to be filed in the alleged assault."
The refusal of the Monroe Country Sheriff's Department to look thoroughly at the incident stands in contrast to the 80,000 people who signed an online petition calling for a full investigation, according to an Oct. 10 Change.org article.
"The campaign's growing popularity is likely to escalate pressure on the Monroe County Sheriff's Department to fully investigate Principal Moser's alleged assault," the article said.
"So far the Sheriff's Department has refused to interview Chris Sigler's sister, who witnessed the incident, or his mother, who witnessed Principal Moser screaming at her son after he wore the homemade T-shirt.