Bad Week for Irmo High School

From Today’s State:

Irmo high principal set to resign over club
Eddie Walker says planned Gay/Straight Alliance group violates his beliefs

Irmo High School principal Eddie Walker says he will quit a year from now, citing a conflict between his religious beliefs and the potential formation of a club for gay awareness.

In a letter to the school and the Irmo community, Walker said the Gay/Straight Alliance Club “conflicted with my professional beliefs in that we do not have any other clubs at Irmo High School based on sexual orientation, sexual preference, or sexual activity.”

He added that the school teaches abstinence and a gay-straight club implies students joining the club would “engage in sexual activity with members of the same sex, opposite sex, or members of both sexes.”

Walker declined further comment. His resignation would be effective at the end of the 2008-09 school year.

Lexington-Richland 5 officials confirmed the resignation and said they intend to retain Walker as principal throughout the next school year, despite his beliefs.

“He signed his contract,” said Michelle Foster, a district spokeswoman. “His resignation is his decision.”

Last week, the principal was instructed to allow the club to form for the coming school year. District officials said federal law prohibits discrimination against any noncurricular club — unless it is unlawful — if others have been allowed to form.

“I bear no malice toward anyone,” Walker said in his letter. “If the people involved at the district level had chosen not to allow the club to form, I am sure the district would have been sued and … that in all likelihood the district would have lost.”

Gloria Talcove, a foreign language teacher at Irmo High, is the club’s sponsor. She would not say how many students came together to form the club or when they came to her for help. But she doesn’t think the attention the club has received should be a cause for concern about the students’ welfare.

“This whole thing is a little bit of a non-issue really,” Talcove said, noting Gay/Straight Alliance clubs are found in other states.

“They are clubs like any other club.”

Talcove called media coverage of the situation “a major distraction” from schoolwork and upcoming exams.

“I really just want the school to recover equilibrium. It’s a wonderful school. I have a wonderful principal. I think the world of him.”

This isn’t the first time Irmo High School has found itself embroiled in a public debate over sexual orientation.

Ten years ago this month, then-principal Gerald Witt refused to let the Indigo Girls — two openly gay singers — perform a free concert on campus that was the prize in a student-journalism competition. Witt faced pressure from parents and community leaders to cancel the concert.

School board chairwoman Paula Hite said trustees would be looking into the situation. But she lauded Walker for his contributions to education.

“Eddie Walker is a great principal — one who we all highly respect,” she said. “It’s a personnel and somewhat a legal issue, and that’s about all I can say.”

Parent Kyle Love, who has two students in Irmo High School, also said Walker has been a great leader, but there should be support for all of the school’s students.

“We are indebted to his leadership,” said Love, who also is chairwoman of the school’s improvement council. “We would not want him to stay in a role that conflicted with his religious principles. That said … I also think we have to respect the law and support all of our students.”

If Irmo High students do form a Gay/Straight Alliance chapter during the 2008-09 academic year, the organization would be the only one of its kind in the Midlands.

Ridge View High School in Richland 2 had a similar club during the 2004-05 school year, district spokeswoman Theresa Riley said, but it disbanded after that. Neighboring Lexington County districts have no such clubs sanctioned at public high schools. And Richland 1 spokeswoman Karen York said she was unaware of any Gay/Straight Alliance chapters at any of that district’s seven high schools.

Leaders of local and national gay rights and awareness groups took issue with Walker’s characterization of the club’s role. The intent, they said, is awareness and safety so education can remain a focus for all students.

“This group is forming to provide support for the gay and lesbian students,” said C. Ray Drew, director of the South Carolina Equality Coalition, a gay rights advocacy group. “It provides a reprieve of the often hostile environment gay students often encounter. This club is no more sexual than the chess club.”

The Rev. Benny Colclough, a member of the S.C. Equity Coalition board, said he was troubled by Walker’s declaration that he will step down a year from now.

“This is going to permeate the atmosphere for a whole year and cause harm to the school — and the members of that club that is going to be allowed to be organized,” Colclough said. “It doesn’t just affect him, but the entire student body.”

Kevin Jennings called Walker’s decision a first in his 20 years since founding the first Gay/Straight Alliance chapter at a school in Concord, Mass. He is now director of the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network, based in New York.

“I have never heard of something like this before,” he said. “I find it bizarre.”

Either the principal does not understand the club, or he is misrepresenting its intent, Jennings said.

But Louise Harrell Grant, a news broadcast teacher at Irmo High for 10 years, said Walker is standing up for his beliefs and cares about all students equally.

“He believes in kids more than anything in this world, and he would do anything for the kids, whether they are gay, straight or have purple hair,” she said. “It just doesn’t matter.”

But Jennings said if Walker doesn’t want to abide by the law and ensure a safe and accepting place for all students, he should leave now.

“He can say in his letter that he believes in the Golden Rule, but his actions say something very different,” Jennings said. “The message he sent to gay students and to bullies in that school is certainly the wrong message.”

Reach Woodson at (803) 771-8692.