October 1, 2014 at 1:21 pm EST | by Lou Chibbaro Jr.
Del. high school faces bias probe
Cape Henlopen High School, gay news, Washington Blade

The Blade reported in June that students and a parent complained of anti-LGBT discrimination at Cape Henlopen High near Rehoboth Beach. (Washington Blade photo by Lou Chibbaro, Jr.)

In a little-noticed development, the Delaware Human Relations Commission voted unanimously at its June 12, 2014 meeting to open an investigation into whether LGBT students at Cape Henlopen High School in the city of Lewes have been subjected to discrimination.

Information about the commission’s action became part of the public record on Sept. 11 when the commission approved the minutes of the June 12 meeting after returning from its summer recess.

“Commissioner [Nancy] Maihoff made a motion to contact the Cape Henlopen School District to request a meeting regarding the recent hate issue and a discussion on the role that the State Human Relations Commission can play in promoting amicable relations,” according to the commission’s June meeting minutes.

“Additionally, the school will be contacted to look into the issue concerning wearing of stoles at graduation that occurred,” the minutes state.

Maihoff introduced her resolution one week after the publication of a June 5 Washington Blade story reporting on allegations by current and former students and a parent of students who had recently graduated that LGBT students at Cape Henlopen High continue to face anti-LGBT bias.

The story reported that students and the parent along with other sources, who spoke on condition of not being identified, said instances of anti-LGBT bias were decreasing in recent years. But they said more work was needed to improve conditions for LGBT students, noting that some teachers and administrators continue to “look the other way” at such occurrences.

Michael C. Kelley, director of curriculum and instruction for the Cape Henlopen School District, told the Blade on Tuesday by email that neither the school district nor Cape Henlopen High had been contacted or notified as of Tuesday by the Human Relations Commission of the commission’s decision to look into possible LGBT-related discrimination at the school.

“As I am sure you understand, it would be inappropriate for me to comment on matters in the absence of any direct, formal notification of concerns,” Kelley said in his email. “However, I can assure you that the district will follow the letter and the spirit of the law, as well as our school board policy on nondiscrimination, in all of our practices,” he said.

Maihoff said last week that the commission was in the process of informing the school district by registered letter of its request for a meeting to discuss its inquiry into possible discrimination at the school.

Brian Donahue, the Cape Henlopen High School principal, couldn’t immediately be reached for comment on the action by the Human Relations Committee.

In an interview with the Blade in May, Donahue noted that Cape Henlopen High earlier this year approved and welcomed the formation of a student Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) club. He pointed to existing school policies and programs promoting diversity and discouraging discrimination or bias against anyone, including LGBT students.

He noted that at least three same-sex couple students held hands at an outdoor ceremony in nearby Rehoboth Beach associated with the school’s senior prom, which is held at the Rehoboth Convention Center. The same-sex couples were treated warmly and with respect, he said.

But Donahue acknowledged one of the references in the Human Relations Commission’s resolution calling for looking into possible LGBT-related bias at his school. He said he denied a request by members of the GSA group for permission to wear a rainbow colored stole as part of their graduation gowns to show support for the club during the school’s graduation ceremony in June.

Donahue disputed a claim by some sources familiar with the school that he threatened to disband the GSA if it pushed too hard for the rainbow stoles. He said he turned down the request based on a longstanding school policy of limiting such stoles to members of academic-oriented or service-oriented clubs such as the Honor Society, Future Farmers of America and the Leo Club, a youth version of the Lion’s Club.

He said a rainbow stole would be making a “political statement” that is contrary to the GSA’s mission as a support group.

An official with the New York-based Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network or GLSEN told the Blade at the time that Donahue’s action appeared to be in violation of various court rulings overturning similar school policies.

GLSEN official Daryl Presgraves said the court rulings held that if a school allows the use of special stoles for students belonging to one “non-curricular” or non-academic club such as the Leo Club it must also allow a Gay-Straight Alliance member to wear a stole.

Maihoff is one of two out lesbian or gay members of the 24-member Delaware Human Relations Commission. All members of the commission are appointed by Delaware Gov. Jack Markell. Steve Elkins, director of the Rehoboth Beach LGBT community center and services group CAMP Rehoboth, is the other gay member.

According to the minutes for the June 12 meeting, Elkins was one of eight members absent during the meeting and who didn’t vote on Maihoff’s resolution. Elkins couldn’t immediately be reached to determine whether he would have voted for the resolution had he attended the June meeting.

Kelley Fox, a member of the Human Relations Commission staff, said this week that Maihoff introduced her resolution verbally rather than in writing and that the commission doesn’t have a written record of the resolution other than the description of it in the meeting minutes.

The mention in the minutes about the resolution’s request for a meeting with Cape Henlopen School District officials “regarding the recent hate issue” appears to be a reference to a report in the Blade story about a 2011 incident during a pep rally held in the school’s gymnasium.

Sources familiar with the school said some students shouted anti-gay slurs at a male student dressed in women’s clothes while performing a scene from the Shakespeare play “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” as one of several performances at the pep rally.

A parent who witnessed the name-calling told the Blade that teachers and administrators were present during the performance but did not intervene to stop the taunts by kids in the audience, prompting the theater teacher supervising the student actors to abruptly end the performance before the scene was completed.

Donahue told the Blade in an interview in May that the school conducted a thorough investigation into the matter and could not substantiate claims by some that anti-gay name-calling had occurred. He said teachers and administrators that were present, including a gay administrator, each told school officials they did not hear or see anyone hurling anti-gay slurs at the student actor in question.

A third concern expressed by sources familiar with the school, as reported in the Blade’s June 5 story, was a report by a 16-year-old student that one of the school’s teachers allegedly has repeatedly made disparaging and hurtful remarks about gay people and homosexuality – both in the classroom and in at least one meeting of an after-school club.

The student paraphrased the teacher as saying in an after-school meeting that a “homosexual lifestyle is one of the dirtiest and most disease prone things that could happen.”

The teacher denied making any such remarks, and Donahue said later that the school investigated the allegation and could not substantiate it.

Maihoff said her resolution was based in part on the Human Relations Commission’s authority to initiate its own investigation into possible discrimination without receiving a complaint filed by a citizen.

She said the commission also has authority to ask the state Attorney General’s office, which is currently headed by Beau Biden, son of Vice President Joe Biden, to issue subpoenas seeking documents or witnesses to testify at a hearing.

However, she said she and her fellow commissioners would first seek to resolve the matter by meeting with school officials to discuss the reports of anti-LGBT discrimination or bias and to work out an agreement where the school and school district agree to make a good-faith effort to address the issue.

Lou Chibbaro Jr. has reported on the LGBT civil rights movement and the LGBT community for more than 30 years, beginning as a freelance writer and later as a staff reporter and currently as Senior News Reporter for the Washington Blade. He has chronicled LGBT-related developments as they have touched on a wide range of social, religious, and governmental institutions, including the White House, Congress, the U.S. Supreme Court, the military, local and national law enforcement agencies and the Catholic Church. Chibbaro has reported on LGBT issues and LGBT participation in local and national elections since 1976. He has covered the AIDS epidemic since it first surfaced in the early 1980s. Follow Lou

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