ACLU Suing Newport-Mesa Schools Over "Rent" Debacle

MOVING UP AND UPDATING WITH DISTRICT REACTION, MORE BACKGROUND.

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Newport-Mesa Unified School District officials say they were attempting to resolve a complaint stemming from the staging, cancellation and re-staging of the musical Rent at Corona del Mar High School when they learned today the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California was suing the public school system.

The ACLU announced this morning its suit against the district and Corona del Mar High officials "for permitting and sanctioning an atmosphere that is hostile to female, lesbian, bisexual, gay and transgender students in general, and has led to despicable threats of violence against one student in particular."

An unidentified female student involved in the production of Rent was allegedly the target of rape and death threats by male students amid an atmosphere of homophobia on the campus that the district has done little to squlech, charges the ACLU. Newport-Mesa Superintendent Jeffrey Hubbard, Corona del Mar High School principal Fal Asrani and a vice principal are named in the lawsuit that was filed in Orange County Superior Court.

Legal counsel for the human rights organization contacted Hubbard on March 13 "alleging discrimination and harassment with respect to one student at Corona del Mar High School," confirms a statement the district issued in response to suit. "The district will still attempt to resolve this matter with the plaintiffs and their attorneys. A review of the lawsuit indicates that there are numerous factual errors and mistakes."

It nevertheless goes on to quote Hubbard saying, "These allegations are very serious and the district will utilize its best efforts to ascertain the truth of these matters, as well as to be sure there are procedures in place to allow prompt resolution of any and all disputes regarding discrimination and harassment."

Rent, which is a modern re-telling of Giacomo Puccini's La Boheme with new music and lyrics by Jonathan Larson, follows impoverished young artists and musicians struggling to live in New York City's Lower East Side. Some characters are gay and some are HIV-infected. Rent was a monster success on Broadway, where it remains one of the longest-running plays.

Drama teacher Ron Martin has said he chose to present the rock opera because of homophobic comments he's been hearing around CdM High. But after it was announced in February to be the next spring production, Asrani canceled it. Martin says Asrani told him she objected to "prostitution and homosexuality" in the show, something Asrani denied when confronted with the statement. The principal explained part of her job is to review and approve scripts, and when Martin did not provide one, she pulled the plug.

That move drew widespread condemnation, with the story getting reported all across the country. Asrani said in the meantime Martin did produce a script for what is a toned-down, high school-friendly version of the musical. She approved it and the show is set to go on April 23.

Martin conceded to the New York Times today that it was he who contacted the ACLU about the Rent debacle and the alleged threats against the student.

"The homophobic harassment and bullying at the school unfortunately typify a rise in hostility toward lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students throughout California in the wake of the diverse campaign over Proposition 8," states the ACLU's announcement.

The suit alleges that sexist and homophobic comments are common at the school, and that school officials have done little in response. As part of its proof of the latter is the brief cancellation of Rent and CdM security officers cracking down on students who wore rainbow-colored buttons in support of the production.

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