Fallout from gay student case roils Fla. town
Residents support principal rebuked by federal judge
PONCE DE LEON, Fla. - When a high school senior told her principal that students were taunting her for being a lesbian, he told her homosexuality is wrong, outed her to her parents, and ordered her to stay away from children.
He suspended some of her friends who expressed their outrage by wearing gay pride T-shirts and buttons at Ponce de Leon High School, according to court records. And he asked dozens of students whether they were gay or associated with gay students.
The American Civil Liberties Union successfully sued the district on behalf of a girl who protested against the principal, David Davis, and a federal judge reprimanded Davis for conducting a "witch hunt" against gays. Davis was demoted, and school employees must now go through sensitivity training.
Despite all that, many in this conservative panhandle community still wonder what, exactly, Davis did wrong.
"We are a small, rural district in the Bible Belt with strong Christian beliefs and feel like homosexuality is wrong," said Steve Griffin, Holmes County's school superintendent, who keeps a Bible on his desk and framed Scriptures on his office walls.
Holmes County, on the Georgia line, has about 20,000 residents. There is some agriculture, but most people are employed either by prisons or schools; some commute to the Gulf Coast to work in tourism. Ponce de Leon, with fewer than 500 residents, has a cafe, a post office, and an antiques store.
Many in the community support Davis and feel outsiders are forcing their beliefs on them. Griffin, who kicked Davis out of the principal's office but allowed him to continue teaching at the school, said high school students here aren't exposed to the same things as youths in Atlanta or Chicago.
"I don't think we are that different from a lot of districts, at least in the panhandle, that have beliefs that maybe are different from societal changes," Griffin said.
Gay rights activists said that's no excuse for what Davis did.
The problems began last fall, when Davis, who did not return phone messages from the Associated Press, admonished the senior, who is identified only as "Jane Doe" in court records and whose friends say she doesn't want to talk about the experience.
The friends donned gay pride T-shirts and rainbow-colored clothing when they found out how Davis had treated her, and he questioned many of them about their sexuality and association with gay students. Some were suspended.
"Davis embarked on what can only be characterized as a witch hunt to identify students who were homosexual and their supporters, further adding fuel to the fire," US District Judge Richard Smoak recounted in his ruling. "He went so far as to lift the shirts of female students to ensure the letters 'GP' or the words 'Gay Pride' were not written on their bodies."
Heather Gillman, an 11th-grader who took part in the protests, complained to her mother, Ardena, a 40-year-old correctional officer and mother of three. Ardena Gillman called the ACLU, even though she knew people would be angry.
"I just felt like I had to stand up for the kids," she said. "Heather wanted to do this, and I had to back her."
Ardena Gillman hoped to protect the students' freedom of speech - whether it was the freedom to wear Confederate flag T-shirts to show Southern pride or the freedom to wear rainbow T-shirts to support gay rights.
Courts have repeatedly ruled that similar student protests are constitutional as long as they are not disruptive.
Benjamin Stevenson, an ACLU attorney, said a T-shirt is not disruptive if it supports other people and their ideas.
Ardena Gillman felt some of the students would need to learn to be tolerant.
"What happens when these kids get out in the real world after they leave Ponce de Leon and they have a black homosexual supervisor at their job?" she said.
The ACLU sued in January, and Smoak recently ruled that Davis violated Heather Gillman's rights.
"I emphasize that Davis's personal and religious views about homosexuality are not issues in this case," he wrote in an opinion released last month.
As Ardena Gillman suspected, the lawsuit created hard feelings in town.
Other residents flatly hail Davis as a hero.