Note: I am still accepting interviews with former and current Gay Straight Alliance members from Union County High School. If you would like to share your story, please feel free to contact me.
Sarah Leuthen graduated from Union County High School in May 2016. A charter member of the school’s Gay Straight Alliance, something about the school always bothered her. She came to Tennessee from California with her family and attended Halls Middle School in Knox County, then moved to Horace Maynard Middle School, the feeder school for UCHS, in the 7th grade.
Sarah, like many other students, noticed discrimination and hazing in the school, particularly towards LGBT students or students of color. When black students came to UCHS, “you’d see them for a little bit, and then they’d leave.”
“High school can be the best years of your life, if you’re white and straight,” she said.
She describes a culture of bullying and hate at UCHS. People with an off-beat style or girls with short haircuts were on the receiving end of verbal slurs like “dyke” and “fag” in the halls.
“A close friend of mine was aggressively bullied for being who he is,” she said.
This student was involved in theater. When he took the stage during in-school performances, Sarah said she often heard things from the audience, loud enough to be heard throughout the auditorium. Students called him a “fag” and boo’ed him.
“No one did anything about it,” Sarah said. “There were plenty of teachers in the auditorium, and I have never once had a teacher say stop. They didn’t care.”
She took non-renewed teacher and GSA sponsor Chris Richeson’s psychology class after her boyfriend Gus Simpson recommended him.
“He’s not like any other teacher,” she said. “He engages his students. He respects you. He’s just different in a good way.”
When Sarah joined the GSA with Gus, things were quiet at first, and she advocated keeping quiet.
“We didn’t really get it at first,” she said. “People would talk about ‘let’s get the word around.’ I’m just like, let’s not be too abrupt. You know where we are. If you start hanging up flyers right away, things are going to get bad.”
And they did get bad. In March 2016, the GSA sponsored a showing of “Philadelphia,” and principal Linda Harrell would only allow the GSA to post signs on glass, limiting them to the lunchroom area.
“Other clubs were allowed to put things on the walls,” Sarah said.
But on top of restrictions on the placement of their posters, Sarah said the GSA also faced discrimination from Harrell when it came to fundraisers. The club decided to sell Skittles to raise funds. According to Richeson, the plan was to “to get the group some startup money so that they could move towards running events, sponsoring homecoming candidates, etc.”
Richeson said he got verbal permission from Harrell for the GSA to sell Skittles. He bought some candy so the club could get started, and then permission was withdrawn when he filled out paperwork for the fundraiser.
“The excuse was the school snack store,” said Sarah. “We were told that we couldn’t compete with the school snack store. But the cosmetology club was selling nachos, doughnuts and drinks during lunch when the snack store was open.”
My request for comment from Harrell and Director of Schools Dr. Jimmy Carter went unanswered.
“We were going to make T-shirts, but most of us were really scared because people against the GSA were very hateful and weren’t afraid to show it,” she said.
Sarah said Richeson sheltered the GSA students during this time.
“Out of all the teachers, I believe he was the one that was everyone’s guardian,” she said. “I believe he was the one that was everyone’s guardian. Some people in the GSA would verbally fight back, but Richeson would say, ‘Let’s not do that. We need to be peaceful.'”
Sarah feels that Richeson’s contract non-renewal was unfair.
“I don’t know what they (the school administration) are doing,” she said. “If they see a teacher who is doing his job very well, why would you get rid of that? He was exactly what a teacher needed to be.
“You don’t get that a lot at UCHS. There are not a lot of high standards. They really lost someone great. There are so many students who wish they could have him, and they don’t get to because he stood up for something.”
Sarah said she fears for the safety of GSA students in the coming school year, particularly those who came out as LGBTQ.
“I wish I could tell them that you are safe there, but I can’t say that because I don’t truly believe that,” she said. “There is just so much hatred in the school, and I don’t know why. The school is just amazing, but not in a good way, in a bad way. I am truly scared. There are other good teachers, but Mr. Richeson was a safe haven for a lot of people.”