- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 29, 2009

A Southern California high school that briefly canceled the gay-themed musical “Rent” has been sued by the American Civil Liberties Union for sanctioning a “sexist and homophobic” atmosphere on campus.

In a lawsuit filed March 18 against the principal of Corona Del Mar High School and the Newport-Mesa Unified School District, the ACLU of Southern California contended that the harassment could be traced to the November passage of Proposition 8, which defines marriage constitutionally as the union of a man and a woman.

“The homophobic harassment and bullying at the school unfortunately typify a rise in hostility toward lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students throughout California in the wake of the divisive campaign over Proposition 8, which eliminated the right of lesbians and gay men to marry,” the ACLU said in a statement.

The Orange County school district responded with a statement, saying the lawsuit had “numerous factual errors and mistakes,” but that officials would continue their efforts to resolve issues related to threats against a female student.

“These allegations are very serious and the district will utilize its best efforts to ascertain the truth of these matters, as well as to be sure there are procedures in place to allow prompt resolution of any and all disputes regarding discrimination and harassment,” Superintendent Jeffrey Hubbard said.

The lawsuit centers on a series of events at the high school that started with a squabble over whether to produce the musical “Rent.”

Principal Fal Asrani was accused of nixing the play in February over its homosexual characters.

Ron Martin, the school’s theater teacher, said he had decided to produce “Rent” as the school’s spring musical and that Ms. Asrani had asked to review a copy of the play.

In a meeting with another teacher, Mr. Martin told the principal he hadn’t yet received a copy of the high school version, which he described as “much tamer” than the sometimes explicit Broadway musical. The story of “Rent” is based on the classic Puccini opera “La Boheme,” with the setting moved from the arts scene of 19th-century Paris to the gay-heavy world of 1980s New York, and with AIDS substituting for tuberculosis.

At that point, Mr. Martin said, the principal told him she was pulling the plug on the play.

“She said that, ‘Because I haven’t seen the script, you can’t do the play because of the homosexuality and prostitution in the play,’ ” Mr. Martin said. “I said, ‘First, there’s no prostitution in the play, and second, there’s nothing wrong with homosexuality.’ ”

The cancellation resulted in a spate of publicity in which Ms. Asrani denied that she had banned the play, saying it was Mr. Martin’s decision. Ultimately, Ms. Asrani received a copy of the “high school version” of the musical and gave her approval Feb. 25.

“I never had a problem with the play selected by Mr. Martin,” Ms. Asrani said in a February statement. “The selection of the drama productions is his call. I just requested the opportunity to review the script before it was final. Administration received parent concerns from a previous play, and I wanted to be able to ensure my commitment to the concerned parents as well as show my support of the student production without reservation.”

A school spokeswoman said Ms. Asrani would not be available for further comment.

The school is scheduled to perform “Rent” on April 23. Mr. Martin said there are rumors on campus of plans to disrupt the musical, which have prompted the school to hire extra security.

Mr. Martin insisted that it was the principal’s decision to quash the play, not his.

“She’s lying,” he said. “Why would I cancel my own play?”

Even though the play ultimately won approval, Mr. Martin said the episode resulted in a change in the climate toward gays on campus. At one point, he said, the principal ordered the confiscation of the rainbow buttons that some students wore to protest the cancellation of “Rent.”

Then, some male students directed lesbian slurs at a female student from the “Rent” cast and threatened to sexually assault her. Three boys posted a video on Facebook in which they threatened to rape her in the back of a truck, and another male student was accused of threatening her on campus.The punishments - none exceeded a five-day suspension - have been widely criticized as too mild.

The ACLU lawsuit said the teacher assigned to investigate the incident was an assistant football coach and that the four boys were on the football team.

The school district “was in the process of attempting to resolve this matter” when the lawsuit was filed, according to the district statement.

The passage of Proposition 8 has resulted in accusations of harassment on both sides. Supporters of Proposition 8 have accused groups such as Californians Against Hate of targeting contributors to the campaign through hostile e-mails, phone calls and threats.

At Corona Del Mar High School, Mr. Martin blamed the principal for setting a tone of intolerance.

“We don’t have a huge, horrible gay-bashing problem on this campus. I’d always thought of us as a tolerant school,” he said. “We have several students who are gay, bisexual and lesbian, and nobody’s been physically hurt. But they had met with the ACLU and said they’d been hearing more things on campus, not just by students, but also a few teachers.

“The principal sets the tone at the school, and this principal has set that tone,” he said.

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