POMPANO BEACH — Blanche Ely High School principal Karlton O. Johnson, accused of “outing” a gay student and threatening to suspend her and her gay friend for holding hands on campus, is coming under fire for his actions.
Broward County Commissioner Kristen Jacobs, who represents Pompano Beach, where the school is located, learned of the incident after reading a story posted Monday on the South Florida Times Web site.
“I am outraged,” Jacobs said in an interview Tuesday. “Holding hands is the one thing that is completely acceptable in our society.”
Jacobs met with Johnson Tuesday to express concern and seek an explanation.
Attorney Barry Butin, who co-chairs the Broward County chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union’s (ACLU) legal panel, described the situation as “disturbing.”
“Freedom of expression is just one of the things that it may violate. If the students are suspended or disciplined in any way, we would take action if asked,” Butin said. “They are minors and their parents would have to decide.”
Community activist Michael Rajner, who serves on the school district’s diversity committee, is calling for Johnson to be suspended and for a thorough investigation.”
“His actions were reckless and potentially dangerous, without any understanding of the potential harm he may have caused by outing these students. Many gay youth become suicidal after being outed and the school district must intervene and link these families to counseling services,” Rajner said.
Johnson did not respond to several e-mails and phone calls seeking comment. But Broward Schools Superintendent James Notter has announced there would be a thorough investigation of the students’ claims.
The probe will include an allegation from the student who sent the e-mail that the principal threatened her with suspension for doing so.
South Florida Times is not identifying the students, who are an interracial couple, one a junior, the other a senior. Both have good grades and one is an honor student.
The students said they were holding hands while walking to class on May 3, when Johnson confronted them and took them to his office.
“We were walking to class when he rolled up on his golf cart and said, ‘Didn’t I tell you two to stop doing that?’ and then he took us to his office,” one of the girls told South Florida Times. “He gave us a speech and then separated us before calling our parents, which was wrong. My mother already knew but my friend’s mom didn’t know she is into girls.”
One of the teens said Johnson had warned them about holding hands on previous occasions but they continued anyway because straight couples were allowed to do so without incident.
One student complained to school officials in an e-mail.
“There has been a situation in my upcoming (sic) school, Blanche Ely High, dealing with discrimination against the gay/lesbian community,” the student wrote in her e-mail. “Our principal here has tried to suspend me and my friend for holding hands. And I would like to know if such actions are necessary for something so fragile.”
The e-mail was sent to all School Board members and several district officials and the complaint was forwarded to North Area Superintendent Sharon Airaghi.
Airaghi sent the student a letter on May 13 stating that Johnson was within his right to act as he did and that he had violated no district policies by his warning to them.
“However, let me take this opportunity to share with you that our District operates under what is termed as ‘site-based/school-based’ management system. This means that the principal, within the guidelines of District’s policies, has jurisdiction to create in-house measures that impact the entire school. These measures fall under the principal’s purview as site-based manager,” Airaghi wrote.
“It is my understanding that the holding of hands on campus is not an acceptable practice at Blanche Ely High School. This practice is applicable to all students, regardless of age, race, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, marital status, national origin, religious sects, as indentified in School Board’s Nondiscrimination Policy,” she added in her letter.
Johnson is garnering support from an unlikely source: the Rev. Oneal Dozier, senior pastor of the Worldwide Christian Center Church in Pompano Beach.
Dozier has been critical of Johnson in the past over a variety of issues but says he stands behind the principal in this instance.
“I am surprised there is not a clear policy that prohibits all kids from hugging, kissing or holding hands,” Dozier told South Florida Times. “He should be commended for trying to make the school a better environment for learning.”
But Kris Drumm, director of Youth and Family for Sunshine Social Service Inc., takes a dim view of Johnson’s rebuke of the students.
“I think that it’s a homophobic reaction from the principal because clearly they are not suspending boys and girls for holding hands, only gays,” said Drumm, whose organization provides services to the gay community. “We are talking about holding hands here, not kissing or some other activity." Drumm says she is particularly concerned that the school district supports “outing” one of the students – revealing her sexuality to her parents.
“It’s irresponsible because these kids are literally being put in danger,” she said. “I see it all the time. The parents are not prepared to hear this information and the youths end up abused or homeless after being thrown out of the house. This is serious.”
Pictured Above: Blanche Ely High School Principal Karlton O. Johnson