Missouri High School Faces Lawsuit Over Policy Banning Same-Sex Prom Dates [UPDATE]

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Stacy Dawson, a student at Scott County High School in Sikeston, says he wants to go to prom like everyone else. - COURTESY SOUTHERN POVERTY LAW CENTER
  • Courtesy Southern Poverty Law Center
  • Stacy Dawson, a student at Scott County High School in Sikeston, says he wants to go to prom like everyone else.

Update: Dawson received word today that he'll be able to bring his boyfriend to prom.

The Southern Poverty Law Center is challenging a rural southeast Missouri high school for allegedly telling a student he can't bring a same-sex date to prom.

Scott County Senior High School student Stacy Dawson says his counselor told him that because of a policy that says "girls invite boys and boys invite girls" to school dances, he cannot bring his boyfriend to the prom on April 20th.

"She said that since it's in the handbook, it would take too long to change and that I probably wouldn't be able to bring who I wanted to bring," says Dawson.

Dawson, a 17-year-old senior, is openly gay and says he's been with his boyfriend (who just graduated from another high school) for about a year. He says his class is tiny, only about 20 to 30 students, and that there aren't any LGBT clubs or organizations. Nevertheless, Dawson says his orientation never caused him much trouble in school, until he found the following policy in the "Scott County Central School District Student Handbook":

School Dances

The following rules apply to all dances at Scott County Central:

1. High school students will be permitted to invite one guest, girls invite boys and boys invite girls. Exceptions approved by the principal only.

"I went to my counselor to ask if this is a real policy," recalls Dawson.

He says the counselor told him she'd check with the school board and then informed him a few weeks later that he couldn't bring a same-sex date because of the policy. Dawson says no one seemed interested in changing the rule.

"It seemed to me like they didn't want to talk about it," he says. "I think I'm the first to actually come out and say I want something done."

Continue for response from the district superintendent and what sounds like a happy ending for Dawson. Dawson says he contacted the Southern Poverty Law Center after looking around on the internet for stories similar to his. The SPLC has represented many LGBT students around the country in this identical situation.

"We're very proud of students like Stacy who are brave enough to come forward and challenge unconstitutional policies," says Alesdair Ittelson, the SPLC attorney working on Dawson's case.

Yesterday, Principal Rich Thomas and Scott County Central School District Superintendent Alvin McFerren received a letter from the SPLC saying that the rule violates Dawson's First Amendment right to free expression and the Equal Protection Act of the Fourteenth Amendment:

Without prompt and meaningful action to remedy the constitutional violations suffered by our client and to compensate him for the harm caused by the District's policy, we intend to file a federal lawsuit seeking full redress, including but not limited to injunctive and declaratory relief, damages, and attorneys' fees and expenses.

When Daily RFT called Thomas at the school yesterday, he said he "wasn't aware" of the complaint and promised to call back with a response. We've yet to hear back.

"The principal has a responsibility to ensure that his policies don't violate the rights of his students," says Ittelson. "We certainly hope the school will understand that maybe they made a mistake and didn't realize they were violating the law. But if we have to file a suit we're fully prepared to do."

As for Dawson, he says he just wants to go to prom.

"It's something that I feel strongly about. I want to help not only me, but if anyone else who is in the same situation," he says. "My ideal prom is just to bring my boyfriend and be able to have as much fun as everyone else."

Update: Ittelson says that Superintendent McFerren reached out to Dawson's guardian, his grandmother, and said that Dawson will be able to attend prom with his boyfriend. However, they have not responded directly to the SPLC. We've left messages for both McFerren and Principal Thomas, but this is what McFerren told NBC News:

"It was never intended to be a discriminatory thing," he said. "We want an educational environment for all of our kids and we're not ever going to discriminate as to whether or not the board has the policy and we don't do that based on sexual orientation. Period."

Ittelson also read us the text messages he's been getting from Dawson today saying that he's gotten "amazing feedback from some of his fellow students."

"I'm really feeling the love and I thank them for being so supportive," Dawson wrote. "The revising of the school policy makes me ecstatic. I'll get to spend this incredibly important moment with my boyfriend."

However, Ittelson says the matter will not be closed in the eyes of the SPLC until they've received written confirmation that the rule will be erased from the student handbook.

"Stacy feels very strongly, as do we, that this is not just about him. This is about students that come after him," says Ittelson.

Check out the full letter from the SPLC to the Scott County School District administrators below:

021413_Scott County Prom Letter

Follow Jessica Lussenhop on Twitter at @Lussenpop. E-mail the author at Jessica.Lussenhop@RiverfrontTimes.com.

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