What Parents Should Know
Charlene Nguon is a 17 year-old high school student who got in trouble with her high school for being excessively demonstrative in showing affection for her female girlfriend. The displays got both girls repeatedly punished after warnings from administrators. In the course of explaining the discipline to Charlene's parents, Santiago High School's principal informed them that their daughter was gay, something that they had been blissfully unaware of until he called. Now Charlene is suing, predictably backed by the ACLU, claiming that the high school violated her privacy by outing her to Mom and Dad, who were, it seems, not pleased.
The school makes the seemingly reasonable point that what Charlene did openly at school (in fact, that it was so open was the problem) could hardly be termed a secret it was bound to keep from her parents. But a federal judge has rejected the school's attempt to dismiss the case, ruling that school officials did not have a right to reveal her sexual orientation to her parents without Charlene's permission.
Let's put the legal issues aside for the lawyers to hash out, and determine what's happening here ethically. To begin with, the school has every right to require demonstrations of affection between students to stay within some reasonable limits. This is a place for education, after all. The school has no right to set different standards for gay and straight couples. But if the discipline was reasonable and fairly applied, the school hasn't crossed any ethical lines.
Nor, it would seem, was it crossing any ethical lines by telling a student's parents why their daughter was in trouble. Surely parents have a right to know that! How can parents participate in and be supportive of their child's education if they don't know what's going on? Assuming that the ACLU will concede that (you never know!) then it would have been all right for the principal to call Charlene's folks and tell them, well, what? "Your daughter has been asked repeatedly not to, uh, be over-affectionate in public with a..a…friend."
"Who is the boy?" they ask. What can the principal say without either outing the daughter ("Uh..he's not a..boy….") or misleading the parents by laying the foundation for their daughter to lie ("You'll have to ask your daughter that question."). "I'm sorry…we seem to have a bad connection!" is tempting, but dishonest. "Come on down to the school and see for yourself!"…would the ACLU like that better? Or is the school expected to keep students secrets from their parents? Imagine the law suits from parents when harm comes to children as the result of facts withheld from them. Those suits will have lawyers salivating in anticipation. What other secrets is a school supposed to keep from parents? That their daughter has been skipping class? Coming to school naked? Practicing bulimia in the rest room? Drinking? Being picked up at school by a gang leader? By Debra Lafave? Tom Cruise? Bill Clinton? What if a student has been seen necking with a teacher…is that a secret they have to keep or reveal? What if a student is showing signs of drug use?
The federal judge's decision was cheered by ACLU lawyer Christine P. Sun, who commented, "Coming out is a very serious decision that should not be taken away from anyone, especially from students who may be put in peril if they live in an unsupportive home." Is THAT the standard? Parents can't be told facts about their own kids if they are "unsupportive"? What parents are supportive of bad grades and disciplinary problems? More to the point, what business does the ACLU and federal courts have telling parents what values they should try to advocate to their own children? Tell us, ACLU: can parents be "unsupportive" of inappropriate and intimate expressions of affection in public? Can they choose to be "unsupportive" of their children defying authority figures, or spending more time mooning over a romantic interest than paying attention in school? How about them being "unsupportive" of their daughter keeping them in the dark about such a basic feature of her emotional state and future as the fact that she's gay?
Wherever the law comes down on this issue (the case is in Orange County, California, after all, so anything's possible), the ethics of the matter are squarely on the side of the principa and the parents. The principal was right not to keep an important fact about Charlene secret from those responsible for her, and her parents, who have every reason to feel that what their minor daughter does…and who she is…is very much information they need to know, and that the school to which they entrust their daughter won't willfully keep such information from them. If they abuse, punish or harass their daughter because she is gay, then the parents will not be acting ethically. But that is a separate issue.
Schools are charged with looking out for students' welfare in cooperation with parents, not in opposition to them. If the law decides that deceiving parents and withholding information from them is a duty of schools, then the law will be wrong.
It won't be the first time.