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Mother fights school over gay remark

Boy, 7, punished for conversation

LAFAYETTE, La. -- When Sharon Huff moved to this mid-size city six months ago, she felt she had found an ideal place to raise her 7-year-old son.

Huff, a 27-year-old waitress at a local steakhouse, had the normal worries of any fretful parent: Is Marcus playing too rough? Is he warm enough?

But on Wednesday she had larger fears. It's been that way since Marcus got into trouble at school last month for telling another child his mother is gay.

Huff is divorced, lives with another woman, and thinks of herself as a regular mother.

She said school's actions in the case -- reprimanding her son in front of his classmates, according to the American Civil Liberties Union -- disturb her deeply.

"This is not a gay issue. This is an issue about all children and prejudice," Huff said Wednesday.

"I want them to apologize so he doesn't feel different," she added. "That's what this is about. This came up, and now he's confused. I want him to know he's not different." The ACLU also is demanding an apology from school officials as a storm of media attention focuses on the playful boy, his mother, and her partner, Heather Manley.

Their phone has been ringing off the hook since an ACLU press release about the incident went out this week.

On Wednesday, Marcus, his mother, and Manley were buying clothes at a Wal-Mart store for a trip to New York and an appearance on "Good Morning America."

The school board scheduled a special meeting for next Thursday to discuss the matter. The meeting will be closed because of laws forbidding school officials from discussing a child's case in public.

The episode started with a phone call on Nov. 11 from the assistant principal at Ernest Gallet Elementary School in Youngsville, just south of town.

Marcus is in trouble, the school official said, for using "foul words" and "talking inappropriately." Huff remembers the official saying he "didn't feel comfortable" repeating the words over the phone.

Worried, Huff agreed a conference was necessary. "I want to get to the bottom of this," she said she told the official, and "see where he picked this up."

When Marcus came home, Huff looked through his backpack, as she does every day. And then she read the report about what had happened at 9:50 a.m. in Room 2.

"Imagine how I felt," she said.

She was astonished at what second-grade teacher Terry L. Bethea had written: "Marcus decided to explain to another child in his group that his mom is gay. He told the other child that gay is when a girl likes a girl. This kind of discussion is not acceptable in my room. I feel that parents should explain things of this nature to their own children in their own way."

Marcus was scolded in front of his classmates, sent to the principal's office, and barred from recess, the ACLU said. And he was ordered to attend "behavior clinic."

Huff didn't understand. She asked Marcus what "bad word" he had used. The child answered, "gay."

"I just couldn't figure out what was so horrible about that word," Huff said Wednesday.

Lafayette schools superintendent James Easton said in a statement Wednesday that "the discipline was related to ordinary student disturbances" and that "this entire matter was reported based on a lack of accurate information." He denied Marcus was disciplined for using the word "gay."

The school's principal, Virginia Bonvillain, did not respond to an interview request.

The ACLU, in its letter to the school, spoke of "censorship," "discrimination," and "harassment," and warned of a possible lawsuit.

Huff sees it in more personal terms. "Why the kids?" she asked Wednesday. "Why are they picking on the kids?"

She grew up in northern California, had been living in Natchez, Miss., and was looking for a place where a gay person could feel "more comfortable."

She met her partner through the Internet and moved to Lafayette six months ago. Huff said she hadn't encountered a hint of discrimination, until now.

Several parents waiting outside the school Wednesday said their sympathies were with Huff.

"That's why I moved here, because I'm open about this," Huff said outside the Wal-Mart. "I moved here so I could live a normal life."

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