Principals Suspend 13 Students After Indigo Girls Protests

More than 100 students at schools in South Carolina and Tennessee walk out of class defiantly.

A total of 13 students were suspended from school following class walk-outs on Wednesday and Thursday in Knoxville, Tenn., and Irmo, S.C., to protest recent cancellations of two separate in-school Indigo Girls concerts. The concerts were canceled due to community protests over the duo's homosexuality and stage show.

In protests staged Wednesday at Farragut High School in Knoxville, about 100 students walked out of the building first during and then after class hours to protest peacefully on the grounds of the school, according to students. About 50 more students walked out of class at Irmo High School in Irmo, S.C., on Thursday to protest their principal's decision to call off the school-assembly gig scheduled for that day.

The first walk-out in Knoxville came in reaction to Farragut Principal Edwin Hedgepeth's decision to cancel an Indigo Girls concert scheduled for last Wednesday at the school, citing reports that the group had used the word "fucking" onstage while performing "Shame On You" (RealAudio excerpt) at an April 13 concert at Loganville, Ga.'s Loganville High School.

Kanishka Biddanda, co-editor of The Crow's Nest, Farragut High School's newspaper, said that students held walk-outs twice during the day, once when the Indigo Girls -- singer/guitarists Amy Ray and Emily Saliers -- were supposed to perform at 12:30 p.m. and again after school at 3:30 p.m.

Ironically, this protest and canceled performance fell on the school's "Opposite Day," a day when seniors at the school were encouraged to cross dress. The week was also the school's "Senior Spirit Week."

"We had actually planned the first protest the night before," Biddanda explained, "but Principal Hedgepeth got wind of it and sent word out to teachers that anyone walking out of class would be suspended."

In spite of that warning, the first group of student-protesters walked right past Principal Hedgepeth at 12:30 p.m. and gathered around the flag pole in the front of the school, which has a total student-population of 2,100. Hedgepeth then warned students to return to class or face suspension, according to Biddanda, at which time all but three students either returned to their lunch period or went back to class. "[The three remaining students] then sat down on the curb," Biddanda said, "and were warned once again to return to class."

Biddanda also said that one of the three students, 16-year-old Holly Alfrod, told Hedgepeth that her parents were supportive of her actions. "I had my radio with me and an Indigo Girls CD (Shaming Of The Sun) playing 'Shame On You.' We were sitting on the sidewalk and the principal asked us if we wanted to go back to class and I said 'Thanks, I'm just going to sit right here.' "

Alfrod said she missed chemistry class and would begin her suspension immediately. "I'm glad that it happened but I'm sorry that the show at our school was canceled. I think it was rude of the principal to cancel it on such short notice." Calls to Principal Hedgepeth were not returned by press time, but a source in his office who requested that she not be named confirmed that the three students had been suspended for three days.

"I wasn't thrilled that Holly got suspended but it made me feel real good that

she did it," said her mother, Jill Wolmac, who added that she felt students were deceived into believing the cancellation had nothing to do with sexuality.

The second protest at the school occurred at 3:30 p.m. and was covered extensively by the local media. This time it was reported that about 50 students gathered around the flag pole after school, many wearing clothes with rainbows, a symbol of gay pride, and holding signs that read "Homophobia is a Social Disease" and "Free Speech is Dead at FHS." According to Andrew Wiseman, 18, a senior at Farragut High and the designer of a "Free Speech is Dead at FHS" T-shirt, press were not allowed on school property during the protest, so the students left school grounds to approach the press. "A lot of people were really supportive," Wiseman said.

On Thursday, students at Irmo High School held a similar protest in reaction to Principal Gerald Witt's cancellation of the Indigo Girls show originally scheduled for that day. The principal bowed to complaints from parents and students about the folkie duo's sexuality and the idea of staging a concert during a school assembly. In this case, about 50 students walked out of class at 8:45 a.m. Those students were soon joined, however, by the entire student body of 1,800 after someone pulled a fire alarm, according to Buddy Price, District 5 school board spokesman.

"After all the students returned to class following the fire drill," Price explained, "those same 50 students remained outside." When the 50 students were asked to return to class after a half-hour, Price said that 12 of the students defiantly sat in a circle, refusing to move. So far, 10 of the 12 students have been given eight-day suspensions for disrupting the educational process, Price added.

"We have guidelines which state that we talk to the students before taking action," he said, "and we are absolutely going by the book with these students."

While the students in Irmo were dealing with the protests and a free Indigo Girls concert on Thursday at the 3,000-capacity Richland Township Auditorium in Columbia, S.C., held to make up for the show cancellation at the nearby school, Indigo Girls supporters in Knoxville were already reminiscing over the Grammy-winning duo's free-for-students gig at the 500-capacity Barley & Hops Club on Wednesday night.

"It was a really great show," Wiseman said. "I didn't really know about their music before the concert, but I recognized a lot of the songs." Both Wiseman and Biddanda said that the crowd and the Indigo Girls gave a lot of energy, with the performers constantly thanking the crowd for having them and the audience singing along to nearly every song.

For Biddanda, the highlight of the show came when one student passed a suspension slip to the stage. "Amy [Ray] read it aloud," he said. "Everyone laughed and then they signed it. That was really cool."

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