BOONE — More than a third of the 1,500 students enrolled in Watauga High School were absent April 25, the day set aside for the National Day of Silence. Under the direction of Watauga County Schools Superintendent Dr. Bobbie Short, all of them received excused absences.
On the other hand, LGBT and allied students who came to school and participated in the nationwide day of action, held this year in memory of 15-year-old murder victim Lawrence King, were reprimanded for not speaking in class.
Citing a policy that requires students to respond to instructors, Marshall Ashcraft, Watauga County Schools’ community relations director, confirmed the punishments. “Students [observing the Day of Silence] were told in advance they’d be required to participate in classroom activities,” he said.
The disparate treatment between the two sets of students drew criticism and charges of homophobia from N.C.’s LGBT community. In an interview with Q-Notes, Short contended that while the decisions might appear anti-gay, they were made solely for safety concerns, given the controversy surrounding the Day of Silence.
Starting months ago, anti-gay “family values” organizations made a heavy push for conservative parents to protest and keep their children home from school on the National Day of Silence. In Charlotte, school board member Kaye McGarry pushed an unsuccessful motion to give excused absences to Charlotte-Mecklenburg students who missed the day.
“We erred on the side of safety,” Short said. “We also had word that we could be picketed, although it never happened. It didn’t enter my mind [when this decision was made] that it would look like it was a tolerance issue. It wasn’t for me. It was a safety issue.”
Short pointed out that the school system gave excused absences to students who were kept home the following Monday on the Day of Truth, a day when anti-gay students speak out against homosexuality. The Day of Truth is organized and promoted by the anti-gay Alliance Defense Fund.
Critics charge that the Day of Truth is merely a cover for teen promotion of “ex-gay” therapies.
According to both teachers and students, the Day of Silence activities at Watauga County’s lone high school went calmly.
“There were few problems,” junior Chandler Walpole told Q-Notes. “This was mostly due to the fact the school system decided to chicken out and give anyone with so called religious objections a free pass for the day.”
Walpole said “it was atrocious that students should be excused” and that the “Day of Silence itself has nothing at all to do with ‘corrupting the minds of the youth.’”
He added that the anti-gay Day of Truth was a “relatively normal” day at school. “There turned out to be nothing particularly different about Day of Truth anyway. We all came to school, expecting to be ridiculed or attacked, but the blast never came.”
Repeated calls to Watauga County High School Principal Angela Quick had not been returned at press time.
Both Short and Quick are set to retire at the end of the 2007-08 academic year. Marty Hemric of Wilkes County will replace Short this summer.