Itawamba County School District officials agreed to have a judgment entered against them in the case of a recent high school graduate who sued her school for canceling the prom rather than let her attend with her girlfriend. The agreement ends a precedent-setting lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of 18-year-old Constance McMillen, who suffered humiliation and harassment after parents, students and school officials executed a cruel plan to put on a "decoy" prom for her while the rest of her classmates were at a private prom 30 miles away.
"I'm so glad this is all over. I won't ever get my prom back, but it's worth it if it changes things at my school," said McMillen, who was harassed so badly by students blaming her for the prom cancellation that she had to transfer to another high school to finish her senior year. "I hope this means that in the future students at my school will be treated fairly. I know there are students and teachers who want to start a gay-straight alliance club, and they should be able to do that without being treated like I was by the school."
As set forth in documents filed in court today, school officials agreed to implement a policy banning discrimination or harassment on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, the first policy to do so at a public school in the state of Mississippi. The school also agreed to pay McMillen $35,000 in damages and pay for McMillen's attorneys' fees.
"Constance went through a great deal of harassment and humiliation simply for standing up for her rights, and she should be proud of what she has accomplished," said Christine P. Sun, senior counsel with the ACLU Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Project. "Thanks to her bravery, we now not only have a federal court precedent that can be used to protect the rights of students all over the country to bring the date they want to their proms, but we also have the first school anti-discrimination policy of its kind in Mississippi."
In addition to today's legal judgment against the school, an earlier ruling in the case set an important precedent that will help prevent other students from suffering the kind of discrimination McMillen experienced. In March, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Mississippi issued a ruling in McMillen's case that school officials violated McMillen's First Amendment rights when it canceled the high school prom rather than let McMillen attend with her girlfriend and wear a tuxedo.
"We're pleased that the school district agreed to be held liable for violating Constance's rights. Now Constance can move on with her life and Itawamba school officials can show the world that they have learned a lesson about equal treatment for all students," said Kristy L. Bennett, co-counsel on McMillen's case. "This has been about much more than just the prom all along – it's about all of our young people deserving to be treated fairly by the schools we trust to take care of them."
After IAHS's original prom date was canceled by school officials in response to McMillen's request that she be allowed to bring her girlfriend and wear a tuxedo, parents organized a private prom at which district officials told a federal judge McMillen and her date would be welcome. That private prom was then canceled as well, allegedly because parents did not want to allow McMillen to attend, instead organizing a "decoy" prom for McMillen and her date and another prom for the rest of the class. McMillen and her date then attended the event the school had told her was "the prom for juniors and seniors" on April 2, where they found only seven other students attending. Principal Trae Wiygul and several school staff members were supervising that event while most of McMillen's classmates were at the other prom in Evergreen, Mississippi.
"We hope this judgment sends a message to schools that they cannot get away with discriminating against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students. LGBT youth just want to be treated like their peers and do all the normal high school things, like going to the prom with the date they choose," said Bear Atwood, Interim Legal Director at the ACLU of Mississippi. "We're very proud of Constance for standing up not just for her rights but the rights of LGBT students everywhere."