Last week, a photo of two Westwood High School students forced to publicly hold hands after being caught fighting went viral on Facebook. The unusual punishment was designed by Dr. Tim Richard, the principal of the public school in Mesa, Arizona. Richards gave the male students the choice of suspension or holding hands for an hour, according to azfamily.com. They chose to hold hands, and endure what fellow students describe as "humiliation" by their peers.
After the photo made the rounds on the internet, commenters responded by criticizing the principal for suggesting that hand-holding between same-sex couples is embarrassing, degrading, or abnormal. Much of the criticism hinges on the intent behind the hand-holding: Was it meant to lead to embarrassment or humiliation, thus legitimizing homophobia and bullying, or meant to promote tolerance and peaceful conflict resolution? Many suggested that the principal's actions may implicitly condone bullying and discrimination against LGBTQ students. Take Part reports, "The message here seems to be that there’s nothing more horrific than being perceived as gay."
School district officials issued a statement, noting that "The district does not condone the choice of in-school discipline given these students, regardless of their acceptance or willingness to participate. District leadership will address this matter with the school principal and review district protocol regarding student discipline with all administrators.”
On Monday, the school seemed to be in a sort of stand-off. A group of over 100 students rallied in support of the principal, wearing orange shirts which read "Keep calm and hold hands." One student even posted a music video on YouTube expressing her support for the principal. Dueling online petitions were circulated. One called for Dr. Tim Richard's dismissal for "sanctioning bullying" and equating "being gay or perceived as gay to punishment"; the other, for parents to support the principal based on his track record for teaching tolerance and supporting his students.
The surprise twist?
The father who started the petition in support of Richard identifies as a "gay dad" — and the ukulele-playing student who urges others to take her hand on YouTube is his daughter. He explains, "I know many will jump on the 'he's teaching intolerance' bandwagon, so let me say this. I'm gay. I'm a gay dad, and my kids, their friends, and everyone I have met at Westwood has embraced our family. The kids at Westwood 'get it' — more than any other kids in this conservative community. They get that this event had nothing to do with that."
On Tuesday, it was confirmed that the principal will keep his job. The District Administration commented, "The district recognizes the recent events at the school have brought out passionate reactions across a broad spectrum of beliefs. We look forward to refocusing the attention of the Westwood community on the critical mission of student learning and achievement under Dr. Richard's leadership."
The principal's justification for his punishment remains unknown, as he has been directed not to speak to the press by district officials.