A week before prom, a Buffalo high schooler is suing his principal for allegedly policing same-sex couples at school dances.
Byshop Elliott says McKinley High School has a history of policies that exclude LGBTQ students—including the principal’s alleged denial of his and fellow students’ request for a gay-straight alliance.
In a federal lawsuit, the 18-year-old junior says students buying “couples” tickets for dances are asked for the names of their dates. Those naming same-sex partners aren’t permitted to purchase the “couples” passes, he claims.
The New York Civil Liberties Union filed the complaint against principal Crystal Boling-Barton this week. The Buffalo School District is also a defendant.
Boling-Barton, through her secretary, declined comment and referred a Daily Beast reporter to the school district’s legal department.
Nate Kuzma, the district’s general counsel, told The Daily Beast he was reviewing Elliott’s complaint. “We take these allegations very seriously… and we are investigating as we speak to get to the bottom of this,” Kuzma said.
While Elliott won’t attend prom this year—it’s only for seniors—he wants to stand up for LGBTQ classmates who may be denied a chance to dance with their dates.
Most of all, he says, he wants Boling-Barton to approve his request for a gay-straight alliance (GSA).
“We are such a diverse school. We have 1,000 students from all over Buffalo. [But] not everyone feels comfortable,” Elliott told The Daily Beast.
“The GSA is not just for LGBTQ allies and people who identify,” he added. “It’s a safe space, just to have somewhere to go.”
NYCLU attorney Bobby Hodgson said the alleged denials of the GSA don’t square with the law, or the district’s own policies.
“Discrimination coming from the very people who are charged with protecting students and protecting their rights is a pernicious and harmful form of discrimination,” Hodgson told The Daily Beast.
“Any time that happens, it sends a message to people in the school that not everyone is being treated equally. It creates real harm and real fear.”
The lawsuit comes at a time when many students who identify as LGBTQ—or lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and questioning—might feel anxious and confused as President Trump’s administration has made moves to roll back federal protections, Hodgson said.
In February, the Department of Education and the Department of Justice issued a letter rescinding Obama-era guidance on transgender students.
“When there is that type of message coming from our federal government, it is particularly important to remind local administrators and localities that these protections exist and they’re not going anywhere,” Hodgson said.
The lawsuit accuses the principal and Buffalo School District of violating Elliott’s rights under the Equal Access Act and the First Amendment.
McKinley High School LGBTQ students “are reminded every day that they are second-class citizens,” the lawsuit states.
According to the complaint, Boling-Barton allegedly imposes policies that discriminate against students who identify as LGBTQ.
The school’s loudspeaker announcements allegedly have warned that students weren’t allowed to bring same-sex dates to prom and that “couples” tickets are for opposite-sex pairs. If a girl dances with her girlfriend, the complaint claims, the principal separates them.
For years, students have asked for permission to create a GSA, but their applications were allegedly denied or ignored.
The Buffalo School District “has been fully aware of the situation” since at least August 2016 but failed to take action, court papers allege.
Elliott, who is gay, says he collected 136 signatures from classmates in support of a GSA in March of this year. He added that the club’s application, submitted at the beginning of the school year, remains unapproved—despite, he says, the existence of multiple faculty members willing to supervise the group.
During the 2016-17 school year, at least 20 students asked McKinley staff why the school is still without a GSA, the lawsuit says.
Boling-Barton allegedly made several intercom announcements warning that same-sex couples were not permitted at school dances from 2014 to 2016.
Students buying “couples” tickets from 2014 to 2016 were asked who their intended dates would be, and those naming a same-sex partner would be denied tickets, the lawsuit says.
“Students who were denied tickets felt humiliated and excluded from some of the most prominent and popular school-wide social events of the year,” the complaint states.
But buying single tickets didn’t work either. According to the lawsuit, Boling-Barton would instruct dancing same-sex couples to separate or face discipline.
Such chaperoning practices led many LGBTQ students to skip McKinley dances and instead attend the “Diversity Prom” sponsored by Gay & Lesbian Youth Services of Western New York (GLYS), court papers allege.
Indeed, the 2016 Diversity Prom had more students from McKinley High than any other area high school, GLYS reported.
The lawsuit claims that McKinley has also been without a GSA despite repeated interest over the last few years—and faculty advisers ready to sign up.
The lawsuit contends this is because of a history of school-sponsored exclusion of LGBTQ students.
About 1,000 students in grades 9-12 attend McKinley High School, a vocational school that offers specialized training in seven “shop areas.” And about 87 percent of the school’s enrollees are students of color.
Many clubs, including the Bible Club, Gospel Chorus, the Future Farmers of America, and African Dance Club, aren’t related to school curriculum, the lawsuit states.
Students interested in forming a GSA during the 2014-15 school year were allegedly denied by Boling-Barton. (The lawsuit does not state why the principal allegedly denied the application, and it’s unclear if reasons were given.)
In the spring of 2016, Elliott says he again sought approval for his club. An assistant principal allegedly told him it was too late in the school year to submit his application and that Boling-Barton would deny it.
Elliott later learned that a new student group focused on international cultures and cuisines submitted an application around the same time that he spoke to the assistant principal. The other group’s application was approved, the lawsuit says.
That summer, Elliott sought help from the New York Civil Liberties Union, which in August 2016 contacted the school district’s counsel.
The district’s attorney “confirmed that the District received and had a clear understanding of this demand for GSA approval, including by confirming that the Superintendent had considered the students’ request on multiple occasions,” the complaint says.
Elliott says he again secured a faculty sponsor and applied for a GSA in the fall of 2016. The faculty member emailed the application to Boling-Barton directly in October but she did not reply, court papers allege.
One month later, the faculty adviser followed up with another email to Boling-Barton, who allegedly ignored it.
During this period, the NYCLU says it sent five emails and left several voicemails for the school district’s counsel, saying Boling-Barton still had not approved the GSA.
For its part, the district has noted that it has publicly adopted anti-discrimination policies and procedures to safeguard the rights of transgender students. “Buffalo should be proud that every student in our District is protected from discrimination in all forms,” one district representative said, according to the lawsuit.
Despite these public promises, LGBTQ students at McKinley “continued to suffer overt discrimination with the District’s full knowledge,” the complaint alleges.
On Wednesday, one of Elliott’s classmates spoke at a press conference announcing the lawsuit against their high school.
Destinee, a junior, said she recently came out as gender-fluid after struggling with anxiety and depression over her identity.
“One of the obstacles I have faced in coming out—and a reason many other students feel they must hide their identities—is dealing with the negative attitudes toward LGBTQ issues at my school,” Destinee said.
“There is an atmosphere of hostility and bullying. That is why, two years ago, a small group of us asked the school if we could form a gay-straight alliance.”
Destinee said other area schools fly their GSA flags at the Buffalo Pride march, while McKinley students aren’t even allowed to attend school dances with their partners.
“All we have wanted is a space where LGBTQ students and allies can support each other, but the school has told us ‘no.’ We want a place where we don’t have to hide, but the school has told us ‘no,’” she said.