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As the cowardly public school leadership in Fulton, Miss., cancels the Itawamba Agricultural High School prom out of fear and loathing of difference, 18-year-old Constance McMillen stands strong in her courageous fight for the fundamental freedom of expression and association — her fight to simply be herself, dress as she wishes, and take her preferred date to that All-American rite of passage: the senior prom.

Rather than let McMillen attend the prom with her girlfriend and wear a tuxedo to the event, the school simply put the kibosh on the entire event. The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a lawsuit charging Itawamba County School District officials with violating McMillen’s First Amendment right to freedom of expression.

The challenge faced by all lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people is crystallized in the gutsy McMillen. She likely did not imagine the media and political maelstrom that would follow her principled decision to stand up to the appalling sentiments of her school’s leadership. Nonetheless, her stand for her dignity and self-worth will go down in history as a turning point for public school students across the United States.

McMillen’s story takes its place alongside a history of prejudice and conformity that has long dogged U.S. public school systems. Accordingly, she has become a symbol for all LGBT people who have suffered through their public school education — whether through bullying, exclusionary social policies (including proms) or the isolation of the enforced closet during their all-important, formative teen years.

Her resolute dignity demands that teachers and school administrators take full responsibility for safeguarding the right to learn. Her fight challenges our nation to live up to its promise of safe and fair public education for every child, regardless of economics, race, gender and geography.

McMillen and her classmates may never attend a prom sponsored and presented at Itawamba Agricultural High School, but they will be able to enjoy a prom in Fulton. The Mississippi Safe Schools Coalition invites all students to attend the "Second Chance Prom," now being organized under its auspices.

Support the Second Chance prom in Fulton by visiting www.mssafeschools.org and learn about this group’s ongoing efforts to ensure that all students have a safe learning environment in Mississippi’s public schools.

We all deserve a second chance to learn, to grow, to create change. Let’s hope the Itawamba School Board takes it.

Originally posted to National Gay and Lesbian Task Force on Mon Mar 15, 2010 at 09:24 AM PDT.

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