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Charter school drops wording that said students couldn’t talk about being gay

After several people complained online, Frankin Academy, a charter school in Wake Forest, has changed wording about homosexuality and transgenderism in its handbook.
After several people complained online, Frankin Academy, a charter school in Wake Forest, has changed wording about homosexuality and transgenderism in its handbook. File photo

A Wake Forest charter school insists it was only a misunderstanding when it told students that they were prohibited from discussing or promoting being homosexual, bisexual or transgender.

For several years, the student handbook at Franklin Academy said that “promotion, affirmation or discussion of behaviors associated with the terms, ‘sexual orientation’ or ‘gender identity,’ including homosexuality, bisexuality and transgenderism, are expressly prohibited.”

But after several people complained online last week, the handbook wording was revised to say that “harassment on the basis of affirmation or discussion of behaviors associated with the terms, ‘sexual orientation’ or ‘gender identity,’ including homosexuality, bisexuality or transgenderism, are expressly prohibited.”

School leaders said Wednesday that the language was revised to make it clearer to students.

“The ‘Prohibition of Harassment, Intimidation and Bullying Policy’ in our 2018-19 handbooks is reflective of the belief of our school,” Denise Kent, Franklin Academy’s head administrator, said in a statement. “One line in this policy was recently clarified when it was brought to our attention that if an individual only reads that line out of context of the entire policy it can be misinterpreted and misconstrued.

“The line has been revised, for clarity, in order to prevent any further misrepresentation of the intent of this policy. We believe strongly in the maintenance of a dedicated learning environment in which students and staff feel safe.

“We appreciate those who brought this possible misinterpretation to our attention.”

But some former students weren’t buying the school’s explanation.

“It’s a good thing that it was changed,” said Krista Gilbert, 21, who graduated from Franklin Academy in 2015. “It’s a good thing that the handbook doesn’t say something horrible.

“But the problem is that it was in there to begin with. As a charter school, they get public funding and shouldn’t be able to do this.”

While the policy was substantially revised in Franklin Academy’s handbook, it was only slightly revised in the handbook for Thales Academy, a network of private schools. Both Franklin Academy and Thales Academy were founded by Bob Luddy, a Raleigh businessman and a leading backer of conservative causes in North Carolina.

The revised Thales handbook still says promotion, discussion or affirmation of sexual orientation and gender identity are prohibited. But it now adds an exception when a student is filing a grievance alleging bullying or harassment.

Several students, both in interviews and on social media, say the prior wording is an example of how Franklin Academy made it uncomfortable for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students.

“I didn’t really complain that much when I was there,” said Bibi Miller, 20, who graduated from Franklin Academy in 2016. “It took me leaving the school to realize how toxic the environment was.”

Miller cited issues such as how she said the school has rejected multiple attempts by students to create a Gay-Straight Alliance club. She said the school mirrored Luddy’s conservative views, with some teachers trying to push their ideologies and with mentions of LGBTQ history minimized. Miller also said she was dissuaded from making a statement in favor of gay marriage in an art project while Christian-friendly art was allowed.

“There were a lot of students who were very conservative who came from a very white Christian perspective,” added Ben Grueneich, 20, who graduated from Franklin Academy in 2016. “That’s understandable for this area. But when that viewpoint is being backed by the management at a charter school, that’s wrong.”

Of Franklin Academy’s 1,639 students, 85 percent are white. That’s higher than the 46 percent of students who are white in the Wake County school system, where Franklin Academy is located but is separate from.

Charter schools are taxpayer-funded schools that are exempt from some of the rules and regulations that traditional public schools must follow.

Franklin Academy is celebrating its 20th year and is one of the oldest charter schools in North Carolina. It’s now one of the largest charter schools in the state and also is one of the highest-performing academically.

But when the new school year began last week, several current and former students began talking online about the wording in the handbook banning promotion of homosexuality, bisexuality and transgenderism.

Soon afterward, the handbook was taken down and the new wording added.

“Word is they are calling it a ‘mistake,’ so they took the link down to fix it,” Ninon Hentz, a former Franklin Academy teacher, posted last week on Facebook. “ I believe it was pressure from all of you — keep it up. Fight the good fight. It is the young people who will save us all.”

The change needed to be made because categorically prohibiting discussions like that violates the First Amendment and its guarantee of free expression, according to Irena Como, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina.

Como said the old wording also violated the Equal Access Act, which guarantees the rights of LGBTQ and allied students to assemble on equal footing as other extracurricular clubs.

“LGBTQ students have a constitutional right to be themselves, openly and proudly, and schools cannot silence them if they choose to be open about their sexual orientation or gender identity,” Como said in a statement. “Franklin Academy has a responsibility to ensure that it is a safe, welcoming and affirming place that supports all students and parents, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. And as a recipient of federal funds, the school is required to do so by law.”

The Franklin Academy controversy is taking place at a time where the issue of LGBTQ rights for students in North Carolina and in the nation are in flux.

In 2016, state lawmakers passed HB2, which dictated which restrooms and locker rooms that transgender people must use in state buildings and public schools. The bill also put restrictions on legal protections that could be given to LGBTQ residents.

In 2017, legislators passed a compromise bill that repealed the bathroom provisions in HB2.

At the same time, the Trump administration rescinded protections implemented by the Obama administration that advised schools to allow transgender students to use the bathrooms corresponding to their preferred gender identity.

Wake County commissioners proclaimed June as LGBT Pride Month during their June 18, 2018, meeting. It's the first time Pride has been formally recogonzied by Wake County.

T. Keung Hui: 919-829-4534, @nckhui
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