Carrie Lasater, an artistic and politically active senior at Poway High School, wanted to attend the school's MORP dance.
MORP is PROM spelled backwards, and the theme was to act and dress like Nerds and go to McDonald's for dinner before dancing the night away in the gymnasium. As the first dance of the new school year, it promised to be great fun.
A problem. Carrie's boyfriend, also a Poway High student, works as a busboy at a Japanese restaurant in Rancho Bernardo and had to work the night of the dance.
A solution. Carrie and her best friend, Emily Kolker, who does not have a boyfriend, would buy a $6 ticket and go together.
A bigger problem. Poway High Principal David Hughes will not allow same-sex couples at dances designed as date-dances. He refused to sell them a ticket.
MORP came and went Friday night, but Lasater and Kolker have contacted an attorney from the American Civil Liberties Union and are threatening to sue to overturn the policy for future dances.
"It's discrimination, and it makes me very angry," said Lasater, 17, who is president of a peace activist group called Students United for a Nonviolent Society (SUNS) and part of the Committee Opposed to Militarism and the Draft, and of the Youth Activism Task Force.
"I've always been active politically, so when I discovered discrimination, it was my duty not to be apathetic," she said. "If something is wrong, you have a duty to take a stand against it. The biggest problem with students today is apathy."
Hughes says the policy is meant to prevent trouble at dances. Allowing same-sex couples would increase the number of unattached males, and that is a recipe for rowdiness, particularly when the males are graduates or from other schools, he said.
"What we are trying to do is avoid situations that encourage students to misbehave with alcohol or fighting," Hughes said. "It has been our experience that couples on dates are less likely to misbehave than single students, particularly those who are not Poway High students."
" . . . Our rules carry no weight with them," he said. "They know they do not have to face me on Monday morning."
The clash between the civil rights of Lasater, Kolker and other teens and the desire of Hughes and other school officials to prevent rowdiness at school dances involves a classic legal problem: How far can individual rights be curbed to maintain the safety of the group?
"We're not trying to keep students out of events," Hughes said. "What we're trying to do is run good, safe events without problems."
At the MORP, Hughes noted, three boys who are not students tried to bring beer on campus. The beer was confiscated, license numbers were taken down, and the three and their dates were sent packing.
Poway High has two kinds of dances: stag dances where only the school's students are allowed, and couples-only dances where one member of the couple can be from the outside.
Same-Sex Dancing Acceptable
The ban on same-sex couples is strictly to avoid trouble and has nothing to do with worrying about a specter of homosexuality, Hughes said. In fact, same-sex dancing is perfectly acceptable at dances.
Poway High student body officers were asked last spring whether they would endorse admitting same-sex couples if it meant closing date-dances to outsiders. The student leaders chose to keep the dances open. Lasater and Kolker think the choices presented by the principal were loaded against same-sex couples.
"It's distressing to see discrimination in this bicentennial year of the Constitution," said Kolker, 17, who is involved in drama and fashion design and also belongs to SUNS.
Since the theme was topsy-turvy MORP, Lasater or Kolker could have attended by asking a boy for a date. But Lasater has a boyfriend, and Kolker thought asking a boy just as a ticket to the dance could lead to hurt feelings.
"I think it would be very untrue just to ask someone in order to get in," Kolker said. "Rather than having an uncomfortable date, I saw nothing wrong with going with my best friend."
Policy 'Encourages' Lying
Lasater, who plans to attend San Francisco State University next fall, says she could have gotten into the dance by showing up and claiming her date was sick. "The policy encourages students to lie," she said.
ACLU volunteer attorney Robert DeKoven, an assistant professor of law at California Western School of Law in San Diego, has written Hughes to advise him of court decisions striking down rules banning same-sex couples at dances at Disneyland and Magic Mountain.
"Your right and desire to control crowds must be balanced with your students' rights to association, privacy and equal protection of the laws," DeKoven wrote. He added that the school's policy violates both the U.S. Constitution and the state Education Code.
"I don't believe it is wise or useful to waste extremely valuable tax dollars on litigation costs and awards," he said.
In defending their bans on same-sex dancing, both Disneyland and Magic Mountain had argued that their rules were to ensure public safety. Disneyland spokesmen said the ban would keep fights from breaking out, and Magic Mountain said employees were worried about AIDS. Both amusement parks lost in court.
As Hughes noted, however, nothing requires Poway High to have dances at all. Teachers and administrators are not paid extra for chaperoning dances.
"The safest thing of all would be just not to have dances," Hughes said. "With high school students, there are always going to be problems. But what we want to do is allow students to have fun with as little potential for trouble as possible. That's all."