SHELIA BYRD,Associated Press Writer
JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — A northern Mississippi school district will not be hosting a high school prom this spring after a lesbian student sought to attend with her girlfriend and wear a tuxedo.
The Itawamba County school district's board decided Wednesday to drop the prom because of what it called recent distractions but without specifically mentioning the girl's request, which was backed by the American Civil Liberties Union.
The student, 18-year-old high school senior Constance McMillen, said the cancellation was retaliation for her efforts to bring her girlfriend, also a student, to the April 2 dance.
"A bunch of kids at school are really going to hate me for this, so in a way it's really retaliation," McMillen told The Clarion-Ledger of Jackson. Calls to McMillen by The Associated Press late Wednesday went unanswered.
School policy requires that senior prom dates be of the opposite sex. The ACLU of Mississippi had given the district until Wednesday to change that policy, arguing that banning same-sex prom dates violated McMillen's constitutional rights.
Instead, the school board met and issued a statement announcing it wouldn't host the event at Itawamba County Agricultural High School in Fulton, "due to the distractions to the educational process caused by recent events."
The statement didn't mention McMillen or the ACLU. When asked by The Associated Press if McMillen's demand led to the cancellation, school board attorney Michele Floyd said she could only reference the statement.
"It is our hope that private citizens will organize an event for the juniors and seniors," district officials said in the statement. "However, at this time, we feel that it is in the best interest of the Itawamba County School District, after taking into consideration the education, safety and well being of our students."
Kristy Bennett, legal director for the ACLU of Mississippi, said the district was trying to avoid the issue.
"But that doesn't take away their legal obligations to treat all the students fairly," Bennett said. "On Constance's behalf, this is unfair to her. All she's trying to do is assert her rights."
Itawamba County is a rural area of about 23,000 people in north Mississippi near the Alabama state line. It borders Pontotoc County, Miss., where more than a decade ago school officials were sued in federal court over their practice of student-led intercom prayer and Bible classes.
Anna Watson, a 17-year-old junior at the high school, was looking forward to the prom, especially since the town's only hotspot is the bowling alley, she said.
"I am a little bummed out about it. I guess it's a decision that had to be made. Either way someone was going to get disappointed — either Constance was or we were," Watson said. "I don't agree with homosexuality, but I can't change what another person thinks or does."
Other students are on McMillen's side.
McKenzie Chaney, 16, said she wasn't planning to attend the prom, but "it's kind of ridiculous that they can't let her wear the tuxedo and it all be over with."
A Feb. 5 memo to students laid out the criteria for bringing a date to the prom, and one requirement was that the person must be of the opposite sex.
The ACLU said McMillen approached school officials shortly before the memo went out because she knew same-sex dates had been banned in the past. The ACLU said district officials told McMillen she and her girlfriend wouldn't be allowed to arrive together, that she would not be allowed to wear a tuxedo, and that she and her girlfriend might be asked to leave if their presence made any other students "uncomfortable."
McMillen said she feared she would be thrown out of the prom because "we do live in the Bible Belt."