Lawsuit Filed Against Jupiter Christian High School on Expulsion of a Gay Student

( [email protected] ) Oct 28, 2003 10:20 AM EST

JUPITER – On Aug 15, Jupiter Christian School expelled Jeffrey Woodard three days after he told his Bible Study teacher he was gay. He was pulled out during class and his teacher asked him whether or not he was homosexual.

"I told him, 'Yes, I am gay,' " Jeffrey says. "I was just being totally honest with him because I don't lie."

In a short meeting at the school, he and his mother say, they were offered the options of counseling to change Jeff's sexual orientation, voluntary withdrawal or expulsion. The first two choices weren't acceptable to them, leaving only expulsion.

Gload asked Grimm why her son couldn't simply complete his senior year.

"If you're asking us to accept him, we cannot do that," she says Grimm told her. "We have an image to protect.”

"I was just shocked," says Jeffrey, "I just couldn't believe what I was hearing."

His mom was outraged more than anyone else. She and Jeffrey filed a lawsuit against the school on Tuesday.

The law doesn't prohibit sexual discrimination at private schools, according to Howard Burke, executive director of the Florida Association of Christian Colleges and Schools, which represents 170 conservative Christian schools in Florida.

Schools that accept disabled students using vouchers must comply with a federal code banning discrimination based on race, color or national origin -- but not sexuality, he says.

"Christian schools do not have to compromise their biblical standards to accept a child on a voucher," Burke says.

The state Department of Education did not respond to repeated requests to confirm that.

Gload was upset about not stating their policy on homosexuality.

"I have trouble with them taking any nickel from my pocket to support their discrimination," she says. "If this is their policy, they need to put it out there."

Sexuality is not addressed in the student handbook. But the book does spell out behavior expectations, school President Rich Grimm said before the suit was filed. Parents and students agree to those standards each year when they register their children.

The handbook's conduct code says students' goal should be obeying Scripture and that they should "practice courtesy, kindness, morality, honesty and consideration" with teachers, employees, fellow students and visitors.

Jupiter Christian is a 40-year-old nondenominational school serving 690 students of various faiths, said Grimm, who has worked for Jupiter Christian for two years. He would not comment on the school's policy on gay students but said students can be expelled for a number of reasons including nonpayment of tuition, which is about $6,000 a year; poor academic performance; behavioral issues, and personality conflicts.

Jeffrey, 18, admits he struggled academically last year. He failed Algebra II and Spanish II. But he and his mom said the school didn’t mention anything about his grades or other disciplinary concerns as the reason for his expulsion.

Even if what happened to Jeffrey was legal, that doesn't make it right, says Jamie Foreman, president of the Palm Beach County Human Rights Council, a watchdog group for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transsexual issues.

"Here we have a kid who was minding his own business," he says. "He had told a few confidantes, which is something we all need to do. And he was lined up and flushed out of the closet and expelled from school.”

Grimm couldn't comment, saying privacy laws prohibit it. The school -- like several area Christian schools -- does not have a separate policy for gay students. It handles all discipline issues individually, Grimm said.

"Obviously, the story you've heard is incomplete," he said before the suit was filed. "Unfortunately, we can't get into the details because of privacy laws and school policy."

"Jupiter Christian School officials did not 'out' Mr. Woodard nor did we violate any request for confidentiality," Grimm writes. "Any allegation to the contrary is simply false."

Grimm also wrote that he believes the court will uphold the school's right to set its own rules. "The bottom line is that this lawsuit is a backdoor attempt at attacking our constitutionally protected rights of religious freedom and free expression."

The school offered Gload the chance to appeal the decision to its board of directors, but she didn't want to do that.

"I was told that he was expelled," she says. "That was the end of it for me."

Jeffrey's mom requested a letter citing the violations of school policy that led to his expulsion. The school handbook requires it, reading, "both he/she and the parents shall be notified in person and in writing as to the reason for the expulsion by the school deans."

Gload's brief letter doesn't provide that.

It reads: "As we discussed, this letter serves as official notice to you that your son, Jeffrey Woodard, is expelled from Jupiter Christian school effective immediately. Please contact Jennifer Ceppo in our enrollment office to facilitate transfer of Jeffrey's records. Please know that we will be praying for you and your family during this transition."

Grimm said he couldn't talk about the letter.

The lawsuit requests both clarification of the school's policy regarding gay and lesbian students and an official explanation of why Jeffrey was expelled. He will need it to apply to colleges, the suit says. Without it, schools might assume he was expelled for violence.

"I just want to know by whose definition of Christianity can you expel someone this way," said W. Trent Steele, attorney for Jeffrey and his mom. "He's a sweet kid, and I think he deserved better than this."