By Billy Davis and Rupert Howell
It all started with e-mails. Two of them. About two different topics.
“Don’t shoot the messenger,” Tim Fowler, South Panola High’s principal, wrote in a Friday, February 22 message to school staff.
Fowler went on to advise school employees to remove any religious references in school e-mail, citing scrutiny by the American Civil Liberties Union and possible lawsuits.
“If you have a scripture verse included in your signature I would suggest that you remove it,” Fowler wrote. “This also includes sending an e-mail to pray for someone.”
The message further explains that Mike Foster, the interim South Panola superintendent, advised principals about scrutiny from the ACLU after Foster and other superintendents were cautioned at a recent meeting of the Mississippi Association of School Superintendents. (See story, A1).
But the e-mails — and the controversy — weren’t over yet. Less than two hours later, Fowler was sending a second unrelated e-mail to faculty advising them that a high school student “has identified himself as ‘transgender’ and will begin dressing as a female on Monday, February 25.”
The e-mail further advises staff that the student, a male, “wishes to be called Leah and be referred to as her and she.”
Between the ban on religious expression and “Leah” appearing at the high school, it seems all hell has broken loose in a week’s time in little Batesville.
Protesting dress code
Social media lit up with reports, innuendos, accusations and debates. A Web page, “Mississippians Support Leah,” had topped 1,500 “likes” by mid-week and drawn support from other states and other countries, and a “Prayers for South Panola” page also sprang up, seemingly in response.
There have also been protests. Some students at SPHS and at Batesville Junior High dressed in clothes, such as sweat pants, that are forbidden by the school district’s dress code.
“He has the right to live however he wants to live, but they’re breaking the rules for one student,” said B.J. Simmerman, a South Panola senior who joined in the high school protest Wednesday morning.
Citing the district handbook, Simmerman said “Leah” is breaking three separate dress code rules by wearing a wig, being a distraction to other students, and not dressing as his gender.
Simmerman said about 30 high school students tried to enter the high school but were stopped by Fowler, who herded them into the band hall and lectured them. Simmerman said he wore gym shorts and cowboy boots, and was told to change clothes.
Allen Jones, the father of two South Panola students, said he permitted his daughter to protest at Batesville Junior High and his son to protest at the high school. Both asked to protest, knowing they would be punished, he said.
Jones said his son was ordered to change clothes, but at the junior high his daughter and about seven other students were called to the office and suspended for three days for violating the dress code.
“He has a right to live his life however he wants to live it,” Jones said of the transgendered student. “But the point my children were making is that it’s against the handbook to do what he’s doing.”
Due to privacy concerns The Panolian is not publishing the name of the transgendered student, whose identify is well known through social media, including his own Facebook page, his mother’s Facebook page, and the “Support Leah” page.
The Panolian contacted the mother, who said she had no comment, citing the “sensitive and private matter.”
School district followed law
“We don’t have a leg to stand on,” Foster said Wednesday of accommodating the transgendered student, an opinion confirmed by attorney Colmon Mitchell, whose Batesville firm represents South Panola.
Mitchell stated Tuesday that he and other lawyers in his firm had agreed and paralleled the issue with a similar case in Itawamba County a couple of years prior. In that case, a female who identified herself as a lesbian was not allowed to wear a tuxedo to her prom. The ACLU sued on the student’s behalf.
“Personally, I don’t like it but we have to deal with it,” Foster told The Panolian. “Whatever society offers is coming to your schools,” adding, “We’re lucky it hasn’t gotten here before now.”
School officials were made aware of “Leah” earlier in February before a meeting was held with school administrators, attorneys for the school district, ACLU lawyers and parents of the students.
South Panola trustees were made aware at their monthly meeting on February 19 during a closed session meeting, after a reporter was sent out of the room for a personnel matter and discussion of a student.
The board reported no official action after the closed-door session on that matter.
Two concerns expressed by school officials included restroom facilities and safety of the student. Foster said the ACLU agreed to the school’s recommendation for the student to use a faculty restroom in the school’s office and use a line of communication from teacher to school principal for safety.
An e-mail clarifying “Leah’s” use of school restrooms was sent on Monday, February 25, from Fowler to school staff. The student posted on Facebook that he would use the faculty restroom, the principal wrote.
“He will be using the men’s restroom in the office because it is the only one that we have that locks,”
The Panolian contacted Bear Atwood, legal director of ACLU office in Jackson, who is working with the student and mother.
Like attorney Mitchell, Atwood also cited the Itawamba prom case. Atwood said that case reached a federal judge who sided with the lesbian student, and she suggested its outcome parallels the dress code situation at South Panola High.
Atwood also explained that “Leah” is in the “beginning stages of a transition process” after deciding to undergo gender reassignment surgery. She would not say when the surgery is planned, citing privacy of the transgendered student.
“It’s not a quick process,” Atwood said, explaining it takes one to two years, which includes visiting a therapist and dressing as the new gender.
The attorney later clarified that “Leah” is not required to “wear a dress and high heels,” only to wear what is comfortable to her.
Superintendent Foster noted that he had already been directed by the school board earlier this year to study if school uniforms might be beneficial. He said this latest incident may be another reason for the district to make the change.