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Lesbian teens sue Minnesota school over pep fest

By CHRIS WILLIAMS, Associated Press

MINNEAPOLIS -- Two lesbian teens at Champlin Park High School have taken the state's largest school district to federal court because they want a judge to force the district to allow them to make a political statement by making a high-profile entrance to a pep fest as a couple on Monday.

Students at the school elected Desiree "Dez" Shelton and Sarah Lindstrom, both 18-year-old seniors, earlier this month as part of the Snow Days Pep Fest Royalty Court. Members of the court have traditionally been put into male-female couples and processed through the field house to a stage while an announcer said a few facts about each couple. The 2011 pep fest is scheduled for Monday afternoon.

A district spokeswoman said the Champlin Park High School principal didn't want the young women to walk in together because he feared they would be teased, but the lawsuit said denying them that opportunity was discrimination and an infringement of their First Amendment rights. The Southern Poverty Law Center and the National Center for Lesbian Rights filed the lawsuit Friday afternoon on their behalf.

Anoka-Hennepin schools spokeswoman Mary Olson said the women said they weren't comfortable walking in with a male student. Principal Michael George was concerned about the reaction of other students to a lesbian couple walking in together, Olson said, so on Friday the district decided the royal court would arrive individually or accompanied by a parent or favorite teacher.

"We believe we have come up with a better practice that is more tolerate and acceptable to all students," Olson said, adding that the traditional method assumed students were heterosexual while the new system makes no assumptions at all.

Sam Wolfe, a lawyer for the Southern Poverty Law Center, said that wasn't good enough. "The intent is really clear," he said. "The district does not want the same-sex couple walking in together."

But, the lawsuit said, walking into together was precisely why Shelton and Lindstrom campaigned to be elected by their peers in the first place. "Their intention was to make a political and public statement about gender roles" and lesbian and gay students, the lawsuit said.

Wolfe noted Shelton and Lindstrom were selected by their fellow students, suggesting the student body may be more comfortable with the teens' sexual orientation than administrators believe.

"It seems the school is ready for this," he said.

Wolfe said a mediation session had been set for Saturday morning. If that fails, a court hearing was scheduled for 8:30 a.m. Monday. The pep rally is set for 1:30 p.m.

Anoka-Hennepin has been in the spotlight before for its handling of issues involving gay and lesbian students. Six students have committed suicide in the district since the beginning of the 2009-2010 school year, and advocacy groups have linked some of the deaths to the bullying of gay students.

However, Olson said the district's own investigation hadn't confirmed that any of the students were bullied and only confirmed one of them was gay.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, based in Montgomery, Ala., is best known for tracking hate groups, particularly in the South. However, in recent years it has branched out into education with its "Teaching Tolerance" campaign. The Minneapolis law firm of Faegre and Benson was assisting the human rights groups.

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