Metro Weekly

Central New York school backtracks after censoring gay student in school newsletter

Tyler Johnson was told to rewrite his submission after writing about how he came to accept himself and overcame anti-gay bullying.

Tyler Johnson – Photo: TikTok.

A Central New York school district experienced a backlash on social media after a high school senior accused administrators and district officials of prohibiting him from sharing a story about coming out and fighting anti-gay bullying in a school newsletter.

Tyler Johnson, a 17-year-old senior at Tully High School, in Tully, N.Y., said on TikTok that he was one of two students selected to write for a section called “Senior Spotlight” for his school’s January newsletter. Johnson said he was asked to write about his biggest challenge in life thus far, and how he was able to overcome it.

Johnson opted to discuss growing up gay and how he had been able to overcome bullying. But after he submitted his answers, Tully Junior-Senior High School Principal Mike O’Brien told Johnson last Thursday that he’d have to rewrite his statement, citing a “district policy” that allegedly prohibited mentions of religion, sexual orientation, or illegal drugs in the school’s newsletter, The Knight Insight.

Refusing to change his answers, Johnson told O’Brien he didn’t want to be included in the newsletter. He then took to social media, posting a video on TikTok complaining about his treatment. The videos were shared widely, garnering more than 12,000 views by Friday morning and attracting attention from both national media outlets and community members.

Johnson posted a second TikTok video updating his followers about the situation. He claimed he had received support from the head of the school board, who opposed the district’s initial decision. Johnson also noted in the video that the alleged policy preventing students from talking about controversial topics in the newsletter obviously was not being enforced, as he found examples of students talking in depth about their religious beliefs and God in previous issues of the newsletter. 

Due to the attention that the story garnered, and the negative press that the school district received, plus criticism leveled at the school district on social media, the district reversed course. On Friday morning, O’Brien called Johnson to the principal’s office to tell him that the decision to censor his submission had been reversed and that his full statement would be published.

Two days later, Superintendent Robert Hughes posted a letter to the community on the school’s website saying he had made the wrong decision and promising to publish Johnson’s original answers. He said in the letter that he had originally refused to run Johnson’s statement referencing his sexual orientation because of concerns that broaching the topic would “stir up additional controversy in our school community.” That would, in turn, “hinder the work” the district is doing to comply with the state’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion initiative.

“In hindsight, this was not the right decision for me to make,” Hughes wrote. “It was not fair to this student, who has demonstrated great courage and honesty in revealing his struggles and in being true to who he is as a person. I do admire him for that. This was also a decision that also goes against values we are teaching our students, specifically tolerance, acceptance and resiliency.”

Hughes issued a second letter calling an emergency meeting of the school board on Monday evening to discuss the situation and what steps the district could take to address concerns raised by Johnson in his TikTok videos. He also took full responsibility for the situation, noting that he had told O’Brien to speak with Johnson about rewriting the piece for the newsletter, and expressing a hope that he would be able to have a conversation with Johnson and his family.

“Clearly as a school district we have to do a better job of supporting our LGBTQIA+ students,” he wrote in that second letter. “I have room to grow in this area as well. I am committed to growing in this area and taking the necessary steps to forge substantial, enduring changes.”

About 40 supporters stood with Johnson outside the school while the board met in closed session — in order to protect Johnson’s privacy while discussing the situation — calling for O’Brien and Hughes to resign. Johnson said he had also received support from other students earlier in the day, with some making or displaying signs or hanging up rainbow flags to protest the school’s attempted censorship.

Johnson told the Syracuse-based newspaper The Post-Standard what happened to him highlights the types of challenges that other LGBTQ students face across the country.

“I knew this was happening to other people,” he said. “I wanted everyone to know how unacceptable this is. The school needs to be held accountable. … You think you came so far in society and then this happens, and you realize how much work still needs to be done.”

Tully Junior-Senior High School – Photo: Facebook.

On Tuesday, Hughes told  The Post-Standard that he had erred in demanding the submission be rewritten, adding that he was trying to stay “neutral” in the newsletter and clarifying that there is no written or official policy restricting the type of content that can be written in the newsletter.

“My intent wasn’t to make anyone upset,” he said. “We are a small school district and community, and we want to include and embrace everyone. If someone doesn’t feel we are doing that, we have a lot of work to do.”

As for Johnson, he doesn’t regret taking the fight to social media.

“I think the biggest takeaway from this is that I want people to realize that standing up for yourself and always standing your ground, no matter what, no matter who you’re getting backlash from, is the most important thing you can do because you can actually create change and get things done,” he said in a third TikTok video.

“[I] also [want] to show people that are just like me, especially people that are younger than me, and who are going through the same thing that I’ve gone through…that it’s OK to be who you are.”

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