WABASH COUNTY, Ind. (Indiana’s NewsCenter) – What was supposed to be “International Day of Tolerance” turned into a couple days of bullying and intolerance at Northfield JR/SR High School in Wabash County. The Metropolitan School District of Wabash County held a school board meeting Tuesday night to address the issue.
It's a case of "who's not tolerating who?" There are several sides to the issue, and all sides said their stance was not tolerated. Last Tuesday, Northfield’s Diversity Club members said they wanted to symbolize and promote unity and diversity by having students wear multi-colored shirts for "International Day of Tolerance."
However, Diversity Club members said the day was perceived to celebrate homosexuality because of the rainbow-colored shirts, and because Diversity Club was founded by an openly-gay student.
The following days, many students wore black and red shirts to celebrate heterosexuality. As a result, bullying ensued from both sides, as well as from some teachers, according to parents.
Laura Cole, parent spokesperson, stood up in the meeting and said students and parents reported that a teacher compared students who were wearing red shirts to terrorists, and other teachers called students “bigots” and “homophobic idiots” via email.
Cole said the parents feel the school showed “incivility” and lacked leadership. They said school officials failed to communicate with parents, and they received no notification or explanation about the “International Day of Tolerance.”
“Maybe it would be something I would like to look up and see what’s its origins are, what it stands for, and just find out what kind of way our school is going to celebrate that day,” Cole said.
Diversity Club members said the intent was to promote overall diversity, not just homosexuality.
“It was supposed to incorporate all of the parts of our school and make it known that we are accepting of other people. And with this, people just assumed Diversity Club equals ‘Gay Club’ and people don't understand that tolerance means you don't have to agree with someone, but you can co-exist peacefully with someone,” said Kalie Ammons, Diversity Club alumni.
Kevan Barlow wore a red shirt last Thursday. He said he didn’t do it to promote being “straight” or discriminate against being “gay”. He said he did it to stand-up for his religious beliefs. Barlow said he was harassed for wearing a red shirt supporting his personal view points.
“I wore red because sexual orientation is a vital subject in the Bible and it does state that homosexuality is a sin and God looks upon it as a bad thing,” Barlow said. “But I wasn’t in any way shape or form doing this in a discriminating or harassing manner.”
Everyone agrees the issue was a huge misunderstanding, but no one is okay with the harassment and bullying that took place. Barlow and Ammons said no one meant to be disrespectful or discriminatory against anyone, but unfortunately that’s how it played out. Cole said many parents felt the overall meaning of the day was not effectively promoted, and turned into more of an anti-bullying campaign, and should be regarded that way in the future.
“Maybe you could call it a compromise. There would still be a day that's recognized, but you could call it an "Anti-bullying Day of Compassion," because there are some strongly held belief systems that are involved on both sides,” Cole said.
All sides also agree that education is the key, and diversity training, as well as a better program dealing with bullying, should be implemented into the district’s curriculum.
School Board members seemed to agree on these aspects and agreed something should be done to educate students and teachers about diversity, as well as create a better anti-bullying program.
The board also issued a statement that said they cannot take action against the shirts students chose to wear because it would violate students’ First Amendment Rights. The statement said, “Under the circumstances present here, the wearing of various colored tee shirts in support of various beliefs is a legitimate expression of free speech with which school administrators have no right to interfere.”
“I know they said they couldn’t do very much because of First Amendment rights, but in school, students should feel safe,” Ammons said. “If someone was called a derogatory name, it doesn’t matter if it was from a member of Diversity Club, it doesn’t matter if it was from anyone else, that person should be punished. I’m not saying that everyone who wore a certain color shirt should be punished, but anyone who was acting like a bully should be punished as any bully would any other day of the year.”
The statement went on to say the school board will conduct an investigation on the matter. “The School Board takes accusations of harassment and bullying very seriously, and the school administration will investigate each and every allegation of threatening and/or intimidating behaviors which may have arisen out of the events the last few days.”
Ammons, Barlow, and Cole said they are satisfied with the school board’s actions and hope the investigation emphasizes the importance of social tolerance as well as anti-bullying.
“I just hope that all in all, they listen to the students that may have been harassed or bullied. I hope that they don’t just take bits and pieces of what individuals have to say, but get all the details and handle it correctly,” Barlow said.
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