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Gay student forced to leave school


Academy forced him to leave after learning of Web site he created

11:04 PM CST on Monday, December 20, 2004

By KENT FISCHER / The Dallas Morning News

Three weeks ago an 18-year-old honor student at Trinity Christian Academy was cruising toward graduation. He had already been accepted to a prestigious university, and the final months of high school seemed a mere formality.

He was a varsity athlete and a winner of service and citizenship awards at the fundamentalist private school in Addison. He was active in the school theater, was a yearbook editor and helped younger students with Bible study.

Trinity Christian was his second family, the student said, and by every indication he was one of the school's favorite sons.

But when the school's top administrators learned that the student had created a Web site where teens chat about homosexuality, he said they gave him a choice: either leave quietly or face expulsion for "immoral behavior," which is prohibited by the school's code of conduct.

In a matter of days, the student, who is gay, went from prized student to sinner outcast.

Today, the student attends high school in Plano, and students, teachers and administrators at Trinity Christian are left debating whether forcing the withdrawal of a popular lifelong student was the "Christian" thing to do. The case also shines a light on the moral culture clash with which private fundamentalist schools are increasingly wrestling.

"I feel completely violated," said the student, who had attended Trinity Christian since kindergarten. "The big lesson here for me is that you can't really trust anybody. That, and I should have kept my mouth shut."

Initially, the student, who is legally an adult, gave The News an on-the-record interview regarding the case. Later, after telling his parents about the interview, he asked that The News not publish his name. The student's parents declined to comment.

Trinity Christian administrators would not talk specifically about the case. Headmaster David Delph issued a general statement about the school's discipline policy.

"As a community of Christian families we also believe the Bible provides insight to help us discern God's desire for our conduct," the statement reads in part. "Therefore we demand high Biblical standards of behavior from our students both academically and socially. Our families are asked to embrace these standards of conduct by signing a covenant with the school when students are admitted. Within this framework of Biblical standards and academic rigor, an atmosphere of enhanced learning, character development, and love are allowed to flourish."

John Craig, regional director for the Association of Christian Schools International, said honor codes at Christian schools play a critical role in establishing a school's culture.

"A school has the right and responsibility to fulfill its mission, and that may involve rules that not everybody is going to agree with," said Mr. Craig, who is based in Dallas. "But the honor code makes it clear so there can be no misunderstanding: Here's who we are, here's what we're about, and here's what we're trying to accomplish with our students."

Legally there is no middle ground: As a private religious school, Trinity Christian was well within its rights to force the student's withdrawal, said Brian Chase, a lawyer with the Dallas office of the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, which advocates for gay rights. Also, Texas has no law prohibiting discrimination against someone based on sexual orientation.

But simmering under the surface are questions about forgiveness, compassion and redemption.

"This is the problem that many Christian schools are bumping into today, more so than ever, because our culture is changing," said Dr. John McCart, president the Texas Organization of Christian Schools. "If schools don't know exactly what their position is, they're hung."

Those who work with gay teens say the expulsion of gay students from private fundamental school is quite common.

"I've heard of kids being outed in chapel in front of the whole school," said Marc Adams, who runs a Seattle-based group called Heartstrong that counsels gay students attending religious schools. "It happens all the time. It's just that so few people come forward to talk about it."

Since its creation in 1996, Heartstrong has counseled 831 students whose sexual orientation got them kicked out of their religious schools, Mr. Adams said.

"And those are only the ... [students] who found us," he said. "There are thousands more that we never reach."

Mr. Craig of the Association of Christian Schools International, which accredited Trinity, said students and parents shouldn't sign the codes if they're not going to take them to heart.

"When you sign something, that's your word," he said.

The student acknowledges that he signed the honor code, which in part states that students agree "to live by the standards of the Code which have been established for my own good and the good of the entire school community." The student also said he knew he could get into trouble at the school for being gay.

"I love TCA, and I think it's a great school," said Brian Reinhart, a Trinity Christian graduate and a friend of the gay student. "But I'd have to say that their decision was political."

Mr. Delph, Trinity's headmaster, declined to address such criticism. The statement he issued, however stated: "We strive to handle each situation, as Jesus Christ would. Since love is at the core of Jesus' nature, we try to ensure each student is surrounded by an abundance of loving care during any disciplinary process."

Current and former Trinity students say heterosexual students who've been sexually active also have been forced to leave the school.

Trinity Christian receives no government support; its annual $15 million budget is wholly supported by tuition, fund raising and investments, according to its federal income tax return. With nearly 1,500 students in grades pre-kindergarten through 12, it's one of the area's largest private schools. High school tuition starts at $11,200 per year, plus fees.

The student said he began telling friends and teachers about his homosexuality last spring after hearing a Bible teacher announce in class that gays were bound for hell. He said teachers and counselors at the school were supportive and understanding.

Ironically, he said, his popularity among students began to rise when word got out.

"Suddenly," he said, "I was the cool gay kid."

But he said administrators didn't think he was "cool" last month after a student brought his Web site to their attention.

The site, which is not pornographic or sexually explicit, is a place for gay teens to meet, chat and post pictures of themselves. The student said a similar site was instrumental in his coming to terms with his own sexual identity.

As of Thursday, his site had 1,724 registered members. He announced his forced expulsion on his Web site. Others on the Web have published similar accounts of his story.

One day last month the student said he saw some Trinity Christian students looking at his site in the school library. On a whim, he posted an online survey on the site asking how many users were Trinity Christian students.

When confronted, the gay student acknowledged setting up the site and admitted he is gay, he said.

He also asked school administrators not to tell his parents about his homosexuality.

"Next thing I know, Mom and Dad are walking in the door," he said.

The student said several school administrators and teachers, in an attempt to help keep him from being expelled, coached him on how to handle the situation.

He should tell the headmaster, for example, that he wasn't gay. Instead he should say that he was "confused." He should say he wanted to be straight. He should agree to counseling. He should also take the Web site offline immediately.

"I did all of those things, but it didn't matter," he said.

The student said a few administrators told him his Web site was the key issue because it encouraged other teens to explore their homosexuality. So in a sense, the student said they told him, he was fostering the immorality of others.

Facing expulsion, the student said he chose to lie so his high school records would be free of disciplinary actions.

Nevertheless, "I love Trinity," the student said. "The faculty, the kids, they were my family for 13 years. They can't take that away."
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