Former student suing Miss. school for excluding yearbook photo

MISSISSIPPI — Thelawsuit of a former Mississippi high school student whose senior portrait wasremoved from the yearbook will proceed after a judge refused to dismiss thecase.

Ceara Sturgis is suing the Copiah County School District ineastern Mississippi for discrimination against her “on the basis of sex and onthe basis of sex stereotypes,” according to her complaint filed Aug. 20, 2010.

Sturgis, a 2010 graduate of Wesson Attendance Center,alleges that her senior yearbook photo was not published because she donned atuxedo instead of the drape designated for female students.

The ACLU filed the lawsuit on behalf of Sturgis, who prefersto wear more masculine clothing. The drape, designed to mimic a dress, made her“uncomfortable” and did not serve as a “representation of her senior year.”

Last week, U.S. District Judge Dan Jordan denied the schooldistrict’s motion for dismissal. The defendants claimed Sturgis had failed toprove her rights had been violated.

“Ms. Sturgis has no constitutionally protected right toappear in the yearbook at all, let alone a protected right to appear in thesenior photo section wearing a tuxedo,” the motion for dismissal reads.

The motion also notes that Sturgis appeared in otherportions of the yearbook outside of the portraits section.

The issue, however, is not about Sturgis’ constitutionalright to appear alongside her classmates; the problem is the differentialtreatment, said Frank LoMonte, SPLC executive director.

“It’s like saying ‘Do you have the right to ride in thefront of a bus?’” LoMonte said of the school’s argument.

After she was allowed by the photographer to wear a tuxedofor her portrait sitting, Sturgis and her mother were told by thesuperintendent and principal that her photo would not be allowed in theyearbook, according to the complaint.

The plaintiffs are arguing the policy is “impermissible sexdiscrimination.”

The judge ordered mandatory mediation in the case. If themediation is unsuccessful, both sides will start the discovery process.

Bear Atwood, legal director of the ACLU of Mississippi,pointed to one particular point of the judge’s ruling she said is critical asthe case moves forward.

“I think when you look at the court’s opinion, there’s areally important question the court asked: What is the school’s reasoning forthis?” Atwood said. “Because they’ve never given a reason, and I think that’sindicative that they didn’t have a valid reason.”

The school district’s exclusion of Sturgis’ photo rests onone of two things, LoMonte said.

Either the school was imposing moral or religious beliefsbased on her orientation, or it was imposing standards on how the yearbookshould look, he said, adding both are “wrong.”

An attorney representing the school district did not returncalls for comment.

A settlement conference in the case is set for Nov. 21.