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April 20. 2012

School allows T-shirt, but only on the Day of Silence

Waynesville, Ohio--A federal lawsuit against the Wayne Local School District and high school principal Randy Gebhardt will continue although the school will now allow a pro-gay Tshirt to be worn on April 20, the National Day of Silence.

Maverick Couch, the gay student who brought the suit said, “It’s good to wear the shirt on the Day of Silence, but we need to push for equal rights all the time, not just special events.”

The suit was filed by Couch on April 3 in U.S. District Court in Cincinnati because the school district and Gebhardt told Couch he could not wear a Tshirt with a rainbow ichthys, or sign of the fish, and a slogan that says “Jesus is Not a Homophobe” in observation of National Day of Silence last year.

The school later called the shirt “sexual in nature.”

In the annual event, students remain silent to bring attention to anti-gay abuse and harassment, and the silencing effect is has on LGBT students.

Waynesville is in northern Warren County, about 15 miles southeast of Dayton, in a socially conservative area of the state.

Lambda Legal is representing Couch with Cincinnati attorney Lisa Meeks.

The suit asks the court for an injunction to stop the school from forbidding the wearing of the Tshirt, both temporarily and permanently.

Lambda Legal attorney Chris Clark said the school agreed to allow the shirt on the National Day of Silence rather than litigate the temporary restraining order.

But the rest of the suit, alleging a violation of Couch’s civil rights and the right for students to wear such shirts whenever they want to, will continue.

“There are limited sets of circumstances where schools can limit speech in this way, and none of them apply here,” Clark said.

“We’re pressing the claim with the intent to vindicate his right to wear what he wants, when he wants,” Clark said. “The message is important to him. He feels passionate about it.”

Clark said even in the cases where students have worn shirts with Confederate flags in racially diverse schools, the courts have upheld the First Amendment right of expression.

In this case, the school wrote to Lambda that "the message communicated by the student’s Tshirt is sexual in nature and therefore indecent and inappropriate in a school setting.”

Clark said the school has not answered the complaint yet, but the parties have a conference with the court on May 2 to determine if the matter can be resolved.

Couch said reaction to his suit has been “so much more support than backlash.”

The day the suit was filed, Couch said he got Facebook messages from people telling him how proud they are.

But not all messages were supportive. Others, according to Couch, were mean. “People told me I need to find Jesus.”

Couch said that there is not much diversity in his community across racial or religious lines. “What [diversity] we have here is accepted to a point.”

Couch said there are maybe three to five openly LGBT kids in his school, and until his suit was filed, it was a subject that was “taboo and quiet.”

Couch said he is not aware of any gay or lesbian teachers, adding that teachers have been put in an awkward position. “I know some of them are supportive of me, but they are not allowed to say it.”

School board members and administrators are also not acknowledging Couch.

“They have all decided not to say anything to me,” Couch said, as he also pointed out the irony in free expression of board meetings starting with a prayer.

Couch said anti-LGBT bullying is also an issue at his school. He has been called names, including “faggot,” other students are rude to him and threaten him. He is afraid to go into the restrooms.

“The school counselor found out about that and showed me where the nurse’s restroom is, and told me to use this bathroom,” Couch said.

Couch said for the most part his teachers have handled the bullying against him well, but the principal has not.

“The teachers tell [Gebhardt], but he doesn’t believe them,” said Couch. “I don’t think he’s trying to deal with it.”

After a teacher took a matter of bullying to him, Couch said it took weeks for Gebhardt to call him to the office to talk about it.

“When I was wearing my Tshirt, it did not take any time to be called down,” Couch noted.

Couch’s suit asks for attorney fees, but no additional money for him.

“I just want to wear my Tshirt. I just want to be represented. I just want to be treated like everyone else. I just want the same rights everyone else has,” Couch concluded.

Related stories

Student sues school for banning pro-gay T-shirt April 4, 2012

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