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School on defensive after telling parents their son is gay

A school district in Utah is defending its decision to “out” a middle-school student as gay to his parents in light of safety and bullying concerns.

“The administrator did exactly the right thing,” said Rhonda Bromley, a spokeswoman for the Alpine School District in Lehi, Utah. “We are not going to back down. We take bullying very, very seriously.”

The Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network urged caution in these situations.

“Schools should not out LGBT students without their consent,” said GLSEN Executive Director Eliza Byard. “Outing a student not only violates their right to privacy, but also could compromise their safety. Parents can be notified of their child being bullied at school, but without disclosing their sexual orientation or gender identity.”

The situation started last week when the 14-year-old’s class at Willowcreek Middle School was assigned to create an advertisement about themselves to hang on the classroom wall. The boy wrote about being gay, Bromley said.

When the teacher approached him about whether he wanted to share that information publicly, the boy said he did. The teacher decided to involve the assistant school principal, who spoke with the boy and counseled him on talking with his parents.

The student was hesitant to approach his parents, but agreed “reluctantly” to let the administrator to speak with them, Bromley said.  At the boy’s request, he was not present when his parents were told.

“The student chose himself to make his sexuality known in a variety of ways,” Bromley said. “And there had already started to be some negative feedback.” 

“If there is the potential for a bullying or a harassment situation, it’s the responsibility of the school to step in and to make sure the student is safe,” she said.

School districts across the country are struggling with anti-gay bullying in light of highly publicized cases involving teen suicides.  In October 2010, the suicide death of two teen boys prompted U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to issue a call for action.

Their deaths followed at least three other suicides that year linked to “the trauma of being bullied and harassed for their actual or perceived sexual orientation was too much to bear,” Duncan said at the time.

“This is a moment where every one of us -- parents, teachers, students, elected officials, and all people of conscience -- needs to stand up and speak out against intolerance in all its forms,” he said.

Byard said it’s important for schools to deal with bullying and notify parents of any instances, without disclosing a student’s sexual orientation or gender identity.

"Taking away the choice for a LGBT student to come out on their own terms opens the door to significant risks, including harassment at school and family rejection," she said.

Andy Thayer, co-founder of the Gay Liberation Network, said family rejection is a real risk, and some young gay teens have found themselves homeless as a result. 

The school "could very well have worsened that situation considerably," he said.

Bromley said the case at Alpine School District has drawn national attention, in part, because the student’s friends created a Facebook page, which has since turned into a an invitation-only group. The original page, which received more than 400 “likes,” asked students and supporters to write the assistant principal in defense of the student.

Bromley said some of the information on the original page was inaccurate, including the claim that the district suspended the boy. She said his parents chose to keep him home this week.

“We’ve received many phone calls and emails from many people based on inaccurate information,” she said.  She said the boy was never in trouble and the goal of the district was to keep him safe.

“The last thing we want is for students to think there would be some sort of consequence for this,” she said.

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