District still says no to lesbian in tux photo

Published 12:26 am Sunday, October 18, 2009

A Mississippi school superintendent said Friday that previous federal court rulings back up a principal’s decision to keep a teenage lesbian’s picture out of a high school yearbook.

The Copiah County School District has been threatened with legal action over the school’s refusal to include the picture of 17-year-old Ceara Sturgis wearing a tuxedo. Female students at Wesson Attendance Center dress have traditionally worn drapes in yearbook photos, while males have worn tuxedos.

The district’s superintendent, Rickey Clopton, said Friday that federal court decisions support the policy at the K-12 school located in the town of Wesson, about 50 miles south of Jackson.

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“We are informed by counsel that this exact issue has been litigated in federal court. The decisions of the federal courts completely support the policy of the district in this regard,” Clopton said in a statement released to the Copiah County Courier, a weekly newspaper.

Clopton wouldn’t return calls Friday from The Associated Press.

Sturgis is a gay student who dresses in male clothing. She submitted a senior photograph for the yearbook dressed in a tuxedo. Sturgis said wearing a drape, like the other female seniors, was a misrepresentation of how she identifies herself.

“What I wear shouldn’t matter. I get to decide how I look in my photo, not the school,” Sturgis said in a statement to the AP.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi has issued a demand letter to the district, telling officials that the teen’s First Amendment rights were violated. Kristy L. Bennett, the organization’s legal director, said litigation against the district could follow if Sturgis’ photograph isn’t accepted.

There’s no clear policy on the issue in the student handbook, according to the ACLU.

In his statement posted on the Web site of the local newspaper, Clopton didn’t cite any federal cases that support the policy. He said the district’s position “is not arbitrary, capricious or unlawful, but it’s based upon sound educational policy and legal precedent.”

The ACLU didn’t immediately comment on Friday about Clopton’s statement.

The owner of the studio where the photograph was taken, Tom Bruckner of Jackson, said he would not release the image to the media, although the image has been used by several news outlets.

Veronica Rodriguez, the mother of Sturgis, said this week that even if the school accepted the photograph she didn’t know if that would settle the issue.

“They really hurt her,” Rodriguez said.