SULLIVAN — A quiet Indiana community known for its parks and corn festival has become the latest setting for the debate over gay rights and bullying after several area residents, including some high schoolers, proposed holding a non-school sanctioned "traditional" prom that would ban gay students.
School officials and many residents of Sullivan, a city of about 4,200 near the Illinois border, have scrambled to distance themselves from the controversy caused by the group's plans and some strong, anti-gay remarks made by one of its members.
Diana Medley, a group member who is a special education teacher in another school district, said she believes being gay is a choice people make and that gays have no purpose in life.
"I just ... I don't understand it," Medley said, referring to whether homosexuals have a purpose in life. She was speaking to Terre Haute television station WTWO at a Sunday planning meeting for the anti-gay dance.
Medley's comments have been widely circulated on social networking sites and in news coverage of the story, and have led to online campaigns to get her fired. A petition on Change.org calling for her dismissal had generated more than 18,000 signatures from as far away as the United Kingdom as of Friday, and a Facebook page supporting a prom that includes all students had more than 27,000 likes.
The fallout has surprised many residents of the coal mining town, which is known in the region for its attractive parks. Some say they think the issue has been blown out of proportion.
"We are conservative around here. That's just the way of this town," said Nancy Woodard, 60, who owns the Hidden Treasure Exchange store. "In any town in this county, you'll find four or five churches no matter how small the town. ... The Bible is a big belief system here.
"Everybody has jumped on this little town. To me, there isn't any need for it," she said.
David Springer, the principal of Sullivan High, said talk of the "traditional" prom began in January after a student began circulating a petition demanding that gays be allowed to participate in the grand march at Sullivan's April 27 prom. The grand march is when couples are presented at the dance.
Springer said Sullivan High's official prom is the only prom the school supports and that it doesn't exclude anybody, including gay couples.
"I've been to eight grand marches and ... we always had girls go out together, and a lot of times they just didn't have a date," Springer said. "Our prom is open to all of our students."
He said the school, which has 545 students in grades 9-12, has never banned same-sex pairs from attending the prom.
"I don't know how you can have a dance and exclude certain people," he said.
Some critics say Medley's statements and the campaign to hold the "traditional" prom speak to a larger climate in which gay students fear being bullied and aren't welcome.
"When someone says your kid has no purpose, how do you think that makes a parent feel?" asked Annette Gross, Indiana state coordinator for Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), whose son came out at age 19.
Aaron Gettinger, a 20-year-old Stanford University student who graduated from Sullivan High in 2011, said he isn't surprised by the push for a "traditional" prom that would ban gay students. He said he was bullied daily because he is gay and encountered viewpoints similar to those espoused by Medley.
"It's just the way that it is," he said. "It's part of a way of thinking that the rest of the country needs to know still exists and goes on."
Those behind the push for a "traditional" prom declined to comment, and it's unclear whether the event will still happen.
School officials and the minister of a church where planners met Sunday have worked to distance themselves from the flap.
Dale Wise, the church's senior minister at Sullivan First Christian Church, said his church turned off its fax machine and took its website offline Tuesday because both were the target of hate mail and pornographic messages.
Wise said the planning group met at the church because it allows community meetings to take place there, but he said the church "had no affiliation whatsoever" with the "traditional" prom effort.
Springer said his staff has been inundated with calls and emails about Medley, who does not work in Sullivan's Southwest School Corp. district. She teaches in the Northeast School Corp., a neighboring district.
Neither Medley nor Northeast officials returned calls seeking comment. The district issued a statement earlier this week saying Medley was "expressing her First Amendment rights" to free speech and that "the views expressed are not the views of the Northeast School Corporation and/or the Board of Education."
Northeast's superintendent, Mark A. Baker, said in another statement issued Thursday that he "cannot emphasize enough the extent to which we are dismayed and disappointed with the statements made by a school employee."
Sullivan isn't alone in its struggles over how to handle same-sex couples at proms. A small southeast Missouri school district is facing a threat of legal action over a policy barring same-sex couples from attending prom together.
The Southern Poverty Law Center on Thursday accused the Scott County Central School District in Sikeston of discrimination and gave the district until Feb. 25 to revise the school dance policy or face a potential lawsuit.
Sullivan High School freshman Te'Airra Walters, 15, said it shouldn't be a big deal for a same-sex couple to attend prom together. She said she doesn't like the negative attention the controversy has attracted.
"People from other schools around here are saying Sullivan is trashy," she said. "I think it's pretty much ridiculous."