Civil rights protest evolves

2 students demonstrate to oppose suspension of two girls after kiss

Dissent at River Hill High

Bias against homosexuals tolerated by staff, they say

Columbia

November 12, 2003|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,SUN STAFF

A civil rights demonstration that started Nov. 5 with two heterosexual girls kissing in the River Hill High School cafeteria, an act that earned each a two-day suspension, spilled into this week when two other students held a protest yesterday outside the Clarksville school.

Sixteen-year-old juniors Mia Freyer and Anna Boyland - carrying signs that read "Down w/ Homophobia!" and "Don't: hate or discriminate" - stood along Route 108 to fight prejudice and the disciplinary action taken against their friends. They got instant feedback from motorists, who alternately gave them the thumbs-up or an obscene gesture.

"If people can make out in the hallway and teachers turn a blind eye to it, why should two girls get punished for it?" asked Boyland, who said she is heterosexual. She added that she has seen a clear bias in the school against homosexual and bisexual students - they face frequent bullying - and prejudice against those perceived to be either.

River Hill Principal Scott Pfeifer said he did not realize there was a problem, but that often the administration is the last to know.

"The students have a level of knowledge that doesn't always coincide with the level of knowledge staff has," Pfeifer told Freyer and Boyland in a meeting he requested yesterday after their 2 p.m. protest.

"Four out of five [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] students hear homophobic remarks ... every day," said Joshua Lamont, spokesman for the national Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, which has its headquarters in New York.

"What's particularly frightening is that 82 percent report that when a teacher or faculty member is in the room, they never or rarely intervene," Lamont added. "If a student stood up and used the `N-word' in a classroom, I doubt that 82 percent of teachers would not respond."

Freyer, who said she is straight, said she hears derogatory terms all the time - largely because she stands up for the rights of those with sexual orientations other than heterosexual - and has rarely, if ever, seen school staff members step in.

"That's an area we recognize we need to do more professional development in," said Eileen Woodbury, who promotes equity in the Howard County school system. "A lot of times I think teachers are not going to intervene if they're concerned that what they're going to do is escalate the situation. These are controversial kinds of issues."

The suspended teen-agers - senior Katherine Pecore, who earned a perfect 1600 on her SAT, and Stephanie Haaser, a junior with a 3.88 grade point average - caused a fuss last week when Haaser decided to complete her English class requirement to perform a nonconformist act.

"The project itself was really just the catalyst for my actions. I probably would have done it anyway," said Haaser, who stood atop a lunch table, shouted, "End homophobia now!" and kissed Pecore.

"I couldn't tell you how long it was, my adrenaline was pumping. I couldn't really believe I'd done it," said Haaser, whose guidance counselor told her she likely will be denied access to the National Honor Society because of the suspension.

"The reaction was very intense from all corners," she added. "I lost a few friends over what I stood for, either because they're religious or have very strong views, and for that I'm sorry. But I had to do what I felt I needed to do. I don't regret it, even after the disciplinary action."

The girls said they were suspended from school Thursday and Friday for disrupting the last period of the day, and not for the same-sex public display of affection. Some students question whether any disruption - which largely took the form of discussion - would have occurred if the duo were a boy and a girl.

"They were talking about it because it was girl-to-girl," said Alex Plaxen, a gay senior who is vice president of the Gay-Straight Alliance at the school, a club devoted to raising awareness and forging better relationships among those of varying sexual orientations.

There are about 2,000 such student-run groups nationwide, and about 100 in Maryland, including at least six in Howard County.

Pfeifer said the suspension and disruption would have resulted no matter what.

"If a heterosexual couple stood up on a table and made out for 10 to 12 seconds, it would have been a similar situation," he said, adding that the girls' display was "exhibitionist" and "inappropriate."

In June, the state Board of Education changed Maryland regulations to specifically prohibit discrimination of students based on sexual orientation, a policy Howard County has had for years.

"Sexual orientation appears to be one of the last frontiers in which civil rights are being acquired," said Woodbury, who has heard frequent complaints of harassment and bullying from nonheterosexual students.

Woodbury said River Hill's administration asked her to meet with the school's student equity committee, which she will do shortly, to brainstorm about ways to improve understanding and acceptance.

The collaboration is what all four girls - Freyer, Boyland, Haaser and Pecore - were hoping to see, though they worry it may not trickle down from the top to the kids perpetuating the abuse.

"We really didn't do this for the administration," Pecore said. "The student body as a whole really needs to be woken up to the fact that there's a problem."

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