As the end of April draws near, more and more students at Fairmont High School are getting excited about prom, the dance most students consider the highlight of their high school experience. However, a high school in Mississippi has grabbed the national stage this year as the time for prom gets closer – mostly because of its decision to cancel the big dance.
The whole brouhaha began when Constance McMillen, a lesbian senior at Itawamba Agricultural High School, asked school officials if she could wear a tuxedo to prom and bring her girlfriend as her date. School officials told her that neither action was allowed under school policies. When McMillen contested the decision, the school board responded by canceling the event completely.
“I don’t think that anything like what happened in Itawamba Agricultural High School would ever happen at Fairmont,” said Fairmont Activities Director Jenny Borchers. “I know we have had same-sex couples at previous dances, and it has never been an issue. We are lucky to have an inclusive, diverse school community. We do not question who a student brings.”
But at Itawamba, they did. On March 10, the Board of Education announced its decision to cancel the prom, due to the distractions it said McMillen caused at the high school. Students are outraged, parents are disappointed, and McMillen feels badly about precipitating the canceling of the prom, but is still proud of who she is.
Opinions vary on McMillen’s actions. Some people say McMillen took things way out of hand and the school did the right thing, while others firmly disagree.
One of those people is Fairmont sophomore Gracie Townsend. “How could the school do this? It should be up to the student who he or she brings to the prom, and the school shouldn’t cancel prom just because one of the students is bringing a date of the same sex,” she said.
School demanded opposite-sex dates
On Feb. 5, 2010, the Mississippi school sent a memo to all the students stating the rules for the 2010 prom. One of the requirements was that students must take a date of the opposite sex.
“Their policies are ridiculous,” said Fairmont German teacher Jennifer Yuker. “It’s amazing to me that school officials are being so closed-minded.”
Upon receiving the memo, McMillen asked school officials if she could break that policy. They told her no. In an effort to preserve her senior prom experience, McMillen contacted the Mississippi Safe Schools Coalition, an advocacy center for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students. They put her in touch with the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, which agreed to get involved in the fast-growing conflict.
When the school board canceled the prom, the ACLU sent a scathing memo to school officials demanding they reinstate the dance and uphold McMillen’s 14th Amendment rights to equal protection under the law, meaning that she should be treated like any other high school student, and her First Amendment right of freedom of expression, the right in this case to wear a tuxedo. Still, the school did nothing and refused to lift the cancellation of the prom.
School officials urged private citizens to organize an event for the junior and senior classes. They refused to host it themselves.
The ACLU, on McMillen’s behalf, then filed a lawsuit with the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Mississippi, claiming that the First Amendment gives students the right to bring a date of the same-sex to school dances. In an opinion recently handed down, a federal judge ruled that the school had violated McMillen’s First Amendment rights; however, he ruled that the school did not have to reinstate its prom because school officials claimed that a private prom would be held at which McMillen would be invited.
The day after the school board canceled prom, McMillen, at the urging of her father, returned to school to a mad group of peers. She was confronted by one classmate who said, “Thanks for ruining my senior year.”
But according to McMillen, she never meant for it to go this far. She was quoted on Advocate.com as saying, “All I wanted was the same chance to enjoy my prom night like any other student.”
In the end, a private prom was indeed held for the students of Itawamba Agricultural High School. In fact, there were two: one that McMillen was invited to at which there were only a handful of students and another much bigger one that McMillen wasn’t invited to and most of the other students attended.
What does Fairmont require?
In light of the growing controversy, many Fairmont students are taking a hard look at Fairmont’s own prom policy, but Borchers assures everyone there is nothing to worry about and that there are few requirements to attend prom.
In fact, the only requirement to attend a Fairmont prom is that at least one member of the couple must be a Fairmont junior or senior. The other member can be a freshman or sophomore from Fairmont, a high school student from another school, or any other person as long as they’re under the age of 21. If, however, a Fairmont student is bringing a person who does not attend Fairmont, a paper must be submitted with information about the person for the purpose of keeping school records. This paper requires a parent’s signature. Without one, the guest will not be admitted to Fairmont’s prom.
According to Borchers, when one Fairmont junior or senior buys two tickets, it does not matter if the other ticket is for a person of the same sex or not. And at Fairmont, unlike Itawamba, a girl would be able to wear a tux. However, Borchers said it would be up to a principal to settle the question of whether a boy could wear a dress. Each request would be assessed on its own individual standing.
The controversy currently surrounding Itwamba Agricultural High School is likely to continue for the next few months. However, the controversy will most likely stay in Mississippi and not spread to Kettering. According to the Activities Office, Fairmont has a very inclusive prom policy that would not allow for something like what happened in Mississippi to happen here.
“I’m very happy with our prom policy,” Borchers said. “I think we take several measures to ensure student safety, but we don’t hassle students to a point where they no longer have fun.”