HRC Blog

One Year Later: Mississippi Prom Controversy

It’s fitting that the Safe Schools Improvement Act was just reintroduced in the U.S. Senate and the Student Non-Discrimination Act was reintroduced in both chambers of Congress. A year ago today, we were reminded of the harassment and discrimination that many LGBT students face in school when Constance McMillen’s story made its way onto our radar.

You might remember that in March 2010, Itawamba Agricultural High School in Mississippi denied Constance McMillen the chance to bring her girlfriend to the school prom. Following intervention by the ACLU, a judge ruled that the school could not forbid Constance from bringing the date of her choice. The school responded by canceling prom completely and Constance faced harassment and alienation from her peers because of it.

Meanwhile, Constance was invited to a “fake prom” while the rest of her classmates attended a secret prom of their own. HRC members and supporters were outraged – more than 70,000 signed a petition to show the Itawamba County school board that we support Constance.

In the year since Constance’s prom was canceled, we have seen some states take important steps toward protecting all students. Notably, Illinois and New York both enacted legislation in 2010 that explicitly protects students from harassment based on sexual orientation and gender identity. A number of other states strengthened their student non-discrimination and anti-bullying laws, most importantly, New Jersey. The New Jersey law is the most comprehensive in the nation, requiring an anti-bullying specialist in every school, extending coverage to bullying that occurs off school grounds that carries into schools, and incorporating public universities into select provisions.

Currently, only 14 states and the District of Columbia prohibit discrimination, harassment and/ or bullying against students based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

This lack of widespread state-level protections underscores the need for the passage of the federal Safe Schools Improvement Act and the Student Non-Discrimination Act.

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