Gay student says principal told him he couldn’t reference sexual orientation in school newsletter

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Here’s how this all started. One of the questions posed to seniors selected for the column is a simple one that has the potential for a lot of meaning and emotional transparency: ‘What challenges have you faced and how have you overcome them?’

As reported by local outlet WSYR, Johnson replied: “The biggest challenge that I’ve faced was growing up gay and coming out. I had to learn how to become comfortable in my own skin and how to stay strong through bullying and all the negative experiences I had while trying to navigate through life.”

Johnson says he was sent to the principal’s office and was “asked or was told” he wasn’t allowed to have that response included; he says he was told he could either rewrite his answer or remove the question. Johnson says he immediately told O’Brien he’d simply opt not to be featured at all if he was going to be censored.

Johnson was allegedly told that in addition to not including references to sexuality or orientation, school policy also forbade references to illegal drugs and religion in the student newspaper. Johnson says his mother, Pam Johnson, reached out to O’Brien herself about the issue in a phone call but the decision didn’t change—yet.  

In speaking to the Blade, both Johnson and his mother say that religion is actually mentioned in these student profiles with some frequency. Johnson tells the Blade he learned from a “confidential source” that the district policy provision about sexual orientation O’Brien referenced was not actually part of the policy at all. Johnson and his mother suggested to the Blade that O’Brien came up with this policy alongside district Superintendent Robert J. Hughes.

According to a former staff member in the district, this isn’t the first time Hughes has come up in terms of LGBTQ+ issues.

Johnson shared his story in two videos on TikTok, where Kyle Taranto, a former social worker for Tully Elementary School, caught wind of the situation. Taranto tells WSYR that when he started working at Tully, Superintendent Hughes asked him not to include his husband in his biography, though this was reversed after Taranto says he talked to the elementary school principal.

“I was naive and I thought it was going to go away and it was fixed,” Taranto told WSYR. “But apparently we still have the problem and my biggest fear when it happened to me was it was going to happen to a child.”

Eventually, Taranto says he resigned from his position at the school. 

The most recent update to this absolute rollercoaster? Superintendent Hughes released a letter on Sunday evening, taking accountability for making the initial decision to cut Johnson’s response in the column, saying he was “worried” it would “stir up additional controversy” in the community and hurt diversity and inclusion efforts. Hughes writes that he ultimately changed his mind after seeing Johnson’s TikTok on the matter. He also notes that social media can be “very destructive” and urges people to keep this in mind when seeing “subsequent news articles” about Johnson’s videos (Hi!). 

According to the letter from Hughes, it seems Johnson’s full, original response will be included in the February issue of the school paper. But how this rollercoaster will impact students—both LGBTQ+ and not—remains to be seen. 





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