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Washington County schools director refuses comment on ACLU demand for apology over suspension of student in gay harassment protest

BEN INGRAM • May 16, 2007 at 12:00 AM

In response to a letter addressed to him by the American Civil Liberties Union, Washington County Director of Schools Grant Rowland refused to comment Tuesday on a matter demanding that he apologize to an openly gay David Crockett High School student.

“No comment on pending litigation,” said Rowland when asked if he planned to respond to the letter or change board policy.

Last month, Crockett senior Curtis Walsh was sent home from school for three days after organizing and attempting to participate in a national “Day of Silence” aimed at bringing attention to anti-lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender bullying, harassment and discrimination in schools.

In the letter, the ACLU of Tennessee demands that Washington County schools and David Crockett High School officials apologize for suspending Walsh and also promise not to punish students who take part in such actions in the future. The letter goes on to say that an apology be issued within one week — by May 21.

While Tuesday saw no response on the part of the Washington County school system or the ACLU, County Attorney John Rambo acknowledged that he would be issuing any type of response to the letter on behalf of the school system.

“No action has been taken by the board of education to my knowledge,” Rambo said.

“The first contact we received was the letter addressed to Mr. Rowland that was faxed to David Crockett High School. At the moment, I am reviewing the letter.

“I just want to make sure that the whole story has been told, and not just a particular slant (as stated in the letter).”

Rambo said it’s not unusual for assertions to be made based solely on the facts that were relayed in the letter and didn’t say what, if any, action would be taken by the county school system.

“Schools don’t get to take away students’ right to free speech just because they fear that others might react badly to that speech,” ACLU of Tennessee Executive Director Hedy Weinberg said in the letter. “The school’s proper response when students react disruptively to constitutionallyprotected speech is to punish the students who are disruptive, not to violate the rights of students who are exercising their free speech rights.”

Whether or not the Washington County school system faces legal action likely depends on Rowland’s response, according to an ACLU attorney.

“I can’t possibly tell you (whether a lawsuit is imminent) until we see how or with what the schools (director) responds,” ACLU attorney Christine P. Sun said.

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