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Tenn. yearbook's profile of gay student brings calls for investigation

May 3, 2012

TENNESSEE — Some community members are asking for an investigation of the yearbook adviser at Lenoir City High School, after the 2012 book included an article about an openly gay student.

On Monday, journalism adviser James Yoakley was asked into Principal Steve Millsaps’ office to discuss the story titled, “It’s OK to be gay,” after a parent wrote an email to the district, Yoakley said.

The student-written story profiles gay student Zac Mitchell, who discusses coming out, bullying, and his family’s donations to gay rights causes and breast cancer research. Mitchell also describes an experience cross-dressing with a friend while in Nashville.

Yoakley said the story was the student editor’s idea. This year’s theme for the book is “In My Element.”

After the yearbooks were distributed Friday, an email began circulating in the community demanding action from school administrators.

“It is time to take a stand for our faith,” the email reads. “We aren’t being called to risk our lives and go before a king like Nehemiah – but our walls are broken down and our gates are burning.”

Van Shaver, a school board member in a neighboring district, wrote on his personal blog that he wants a criminal investigation into the matter.

“If in fact it was Mr. Yoakley or any other teacher who allowed this article to be published in the yearbook, they should be dismissed from the school immediately.”

Shaver also wrote that if Yoakley or any other teacher talked with students about their sexual orientation “prior to those students being of legal age, those teachers should be charged with child sex abuse by an authority figure and arrested.”

Lenoir City Superintendent Wayne Miller declined to comment.

“The editor tried to capture the school from all the different ways and places students fit into the school community,” Yoakley said by email. “She did it quite well. The gay student was just one of many ‘elements’ we covered.”

Yoakley said reaction to the story has been mixed.

A community member against the publication of the article created a Facebook page, “Take A Stand Lenoir City.” The page had 75 “likes” as of Thursday evening. A Facebook group supporting the story, “Take A Stand Against The Ignorance In Lenoir City,” was also created. It had more than 1,100 likes as of Thursday.

The parent email questions whether the yearbook staff would allow Christianity in the book. Yoakley said the book does, and cited content featuring church hangouts, passages from Proverbs, John, Psalms and Philippians that are also present in the yearbook.

Yoakley said his students did a good job, even though he worries about his position as journalism adviser. He said he believes publishing the story was “the right and legal thing to do.”

The same school made headlines in February after administrators refused to allow the student newspaper to print an editorial about atheism and the separation of church and state.

By Emily Summars, SPLC staff writer


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© 2012 Student Press Law Center

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