Cape Henlopen High School is in Lewes, Del., but the school’s senior prom takes place at the convention center in nearby Rehoboth Beach, which is well known as an LGBT-friendly resort town.
Last week, as part of a longstanding tradition, Cape Henlopen’s graduating seniors attending the prom assembled in front of a bandstand next to the Rehoboth boardwalk in the center of town where each of the couples was introduced before a crowd of close to a thousand people, according to principal Brian Donahue.
Among them were at least three or four same-sex female couples and one same-sex male couple, Donahue said. Like everyone else, he said the young lesbians wore formal ball gowns and the gay guys wore tuxedos and proudly walked hand-in-hand.
“Our students are very accepting of each other,” Donahue said. He added that the school – located in staunchly conservative Sussex County – embraces diversity and inclusiveness and has welcomed a student Gay-Straight Alliance or GSA club, which formed earlier this year.
But at the same time, sources familiar with the school said Donahue turned down a request by members of the GSA for permission to wear a rainbow colored stole as part of their graduation gowns this year to show support for the club. According to the sources, Donahue threatened to disband the GSA if it pushed too hard for the rainbow stoles.
Donahue disputes that he threatened to disband the group. However, he said he turned down the request for the rainbow stoles based on a longstanding school policy of limiting such stoles to members of academic-oriented and service-oriented clubs such as the Honor Society, Future Farmers of America, and the Leo Club, a youth version of the Lion’s Club.
A rainbow stole would be making a “political statement” that is contrary to the GSA’s mission as a support group, he said.
Daryl Presgraves, communications director for the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network or GLSEN, a New York-based national organization that advocates for LGBT students, said the policy restriction cited by Donahue appears to be in violation of numerous court rulings overturning similar school policies.
Presgraves said the court rulings have narrowed the categories of school clubs for the purpose of wearing graduation stoles to “curricular” and “non-curricular” clubs and organizations, with service-oriented clubs placed in the non-curricular category.
“If a school allows one non-curricular club to let its members wear a stole then it must also allow a Gay-Straight Alliance member to wear a stole,” he said. He said that should they choose to do so, members or supporters of the Cape Henlopen GSA would likely have legal grounds to challenge and overturn the school’s restriction on the stoles.
More than a half-dozen people familiar with the school – including current and former students and a parent of students who recently graduated – told the Blade that while the formation of the GSA group this year and the gay student participation in the prom were encouraging signs, LGBT students at Cape Henlopen High School continue to face anti-LGBT bias.
They say instances of bias are decreasing but more work is needed to improve conditions for LGBT students and many teachers and administrators continue to “look the other way” at such occurrences.
As an example, reports have surfaced that at least one teacher at the school has routinely made disparaging comments about LGBT people and homosexuality.
According to a student who spoke with the Blade, Family and Consumer Sciences Department teacher Alayna Aiken, who teaches a class called Human Development, told students during a meeting of an after-school club that a “homosexual lifestyle is one of the dirtiest and most disease prone things that could happen.”
The student told the Blade she was present when Aiken said this and that other students told her Aiken has made similar comments in the classroom with her students enrolled in the Human Development class.
Reached by phone in her class during another afterschool meeting, Aiken strongly denied ever making inappropriate remarks to students on any subject.
“I’m not sure what you’re talking about because students are allowed to express their own thoughts,” she said. “There are no disparaging comments. I have a very open dialogue in my classroom and freedom of ideas. I facilitate classroom discussions.”
Aiken added: “Cape Henlopen High School is a great school and I have great relations with my students and I enjoy them and all of their varying perspectives in the world. I have always had a very open and inviting classroom for any kind of discussion of anything.”
“And there are competing ideas in the world and they all need to be heard and dealt with and thought through logically. It is what it is,” she said. “And so the things that are taught in my classroom are appropriate and in alignment with all state standards. And I love teaching. I love students.”
Donahue said comments by a teacher along the lines described by the student – if found to be true – are unacceptable at Cape Henlopen High School. He said he would immediately investigate the matter, saying teachers’ personal opinions should not be interjected into the classroom or afterschool club meetings.
The student who spoke with the Blade is a 16-year-old sophomore. Although she spoke on the record and didn’t place any restrictions on being identified in a news story, the Blade has chosen to withhold her name.
The decision was based in part on reports by other sources familiar with the school who spoke only on the condition that their names be withheld out of fear that they could face retaliation or ridicule for speaking about the school in a less than positive way.
The faculty adviser for the Cape Henlopen GSA, theater teacher Martha Pfeiffer, told the Blade she could not comment or be interviewed about the GSA and other school-related matters under a school policy that doesn’t allow teachers to speak to the press on controversial issues.
Among the subjects Pfeiffer apparently could not discuss was a 2011 incident involving a school theater performance under her direction that created a stir among students and parents.
Several sources familiar with the school told the Blade the incident erupted during a school pep rally at the gymnasium when about five or six theater students performed a scene from the Shakespeare play “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” When one of the male student actors appeared as a character wearing women’s clothes, as specified in the play, many of the kids in the audience began to jeer and yell at him in a derogatory way, according to a parent who was present in the audience.
At least one male student in the audience yelled the word “fag” and others shouted similar anti-gay slurs, the parent told the Blade.
“I just happened to be sitting in the bleachers around a bunch of teachers and kids so I heard the actual words,” the parent said.
“I don’t think the reaction with the kids was terribly surprising,” she said. “Maybe in any school a bunch of teenagers see a boy dressed like a girl and they’re going to, you know, be stupid,” said the parent. “For me, the alarming part was the lack of direction by the adults.”
Asked if any of the teachers or administrators in the audience attempted to intervene or put a stop to the name-calling, the parent said they did not. She said that Pfeiffer, sensing her students were being subjected to taunting and slurs, abruptly ended the performance before the scene was completed.
Donahue said he did not attend the pep rally where the alleged anti-gay name-calling took place. But he said the school investigated the matter and could not obtain sufficient evidence to conclude that anti-gay slurs were made or who allegedly made them.
“This incident that happened was investigated as soon as we got the information, which wasn’t given to us until a day or so later,” he said. “We investigated as hard as we can investigate. There were administrators there. There was somebody from the press there,” he said.
“One of our administrators at that time was a gay administrator,” he said. “They were there. They didn’t see it. They didn’t hear it.”
According to Donahue, after questioning witnesses to come up with a name of someone who allegedly made the slurs investigators were given the name of a student that Donahue characterized as a “pretty easy target.” He said the investigation exonerated that person.
Since that time, Donahue said no further reports of incidents or problems along those lines have surfaced at the school. He said the school long ago has adopted programs to combat bullying against any student and has programs to promote diversity and inclusiveness.
“As a whole and as a group I don’t know if you’re going to find a more inclusive high school and supportive high school than we are now,” he said. “And there are people here of all nationalities, races, and sexual preferences. Is it perfect? No, I don’t think it is. But I think we’re leading the way to make it better without a doubt.”
Mike Kelley, director of curriculum and instruction for the Cape Henlopen School District, which oversees the high school, and Roni Posner, an out lesbian and longtime educator who won election to the Cape Henlopen Board of Education in 2010, echoed Donahue’s assessment that Cape Henlopen High School’s outreach programs for all minorities, including LGBT students, have improved significantly over the past several years.
Posner said that based on a call to her by the Blade asking about the LGBT-related issues raised by the sources that spoke to the Blade she has asked the school district’s superintendent, Robert Fulton, to look into the issues raised.
“He said he would look into it,” she said.
“I’m concerned about these reports but I’m also excited about the phenomenal progress we’ve made at the high school in academic achievement in the last several years,” Posner said.
As she was getting ready to attend the school’s graduation ceremony Tuesday afternoon Posner said she was excited that graduating seniors this year won $4.1 million in scholarships for college and other post-secondary educational institutions, an amount double that from one year earlier.
“Our test scores have improved a lot, too,” she said.
Concerning the LGBT-related issues at the high school and the school district, Posner, who now serves as vice president of the school board, said, “We have made a lot of progress. There is still work to do.”