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Dispute Changes Image of Fountain Valley High : Polarization: Heated controversy over gay-support group makes some fearful of an outbreak of violence.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In three years as principal of Fountain Valley High School, Gary Ernst has tried hard to foster an atmosphere of tolerance, where students from different backgrounds and with varying values could gain acceptance from their peers.

So it is with some dismay that Ernst finds himself and his school at the heart of an intensely debated, communitywide controversy over the formation of a campus support group for gay students.

“What you’re getting now is a picture of a school that doesn’t accept differences, and that’s just not the case,” a weary-sounding Ernst said about a week ago, just after more than 200 people crowded into the Huntington Beach Union High School District board auditorium for an emotional debate on the group’s future.

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“There’s been a real polarization of the school and the community over this issue, and I don’t know how it’s going to end,” Ernst said.

Since the support group was formed in October, in fact, the atmosphere at the school has become so charged that many on both sides of the issue now say they fear violence could result.

At a meeting Friday of the support group, known as the Fountain Valley High School Student Alliance, some members said they had been hit in the head with apples thrown during recent lunch periods, according to a faculty supervisor who attended the meeting.

Jim Fuller, a parent active in the opposition to the group, said last week that he had received telephoned death threats, apparently linked to his role in the controversy.

“The anger and the hostility that has greeted this has been pretty scary,” said English teacher Michael Poff, one of two faculty supervisors for the support group. “If one of these kids gets hurt, I’m going to carry that with me all my life.

“But I can’t just abandon them either. It’s like we’re on a train right now and we can’t get off.”

The turmoil seems unlikely to recede any time soon. Fuller, the father of three Fountain Valley students, said he is forming a parents organization to fight the district’s equal access policy, which allows the group and other non-curricular organizations to use school facilities during non-instructional time if they abide by certain conditions.

“Children have rights and we agree with that, but when they’re given a right that’s harmful to health and growth, we as parents have the right to say something,” said Fuller, 35, who owns a sewing machine and vacuum cleaner sales business. “Homosexuality kills almost all its participants. How anyone can condone orientation into such a field is beyond me.”

Ernst, however, said the school and the school district are not “condoning” anything in allowing the group to meet. “The only issue here is, do we have an equal access policy or not? Right now, we do have such a policy and it’s part of my job to make sure it’s enforced consistently.”

The district’s board of trustees is scheduled to vote Jan. 11 on whether to continue the policy. But if it is upheld, Fuller plans to file a lawsuit in an effort to force it off the books.

“I’ve made 200 or 300 contacts with other parents so far, and hope to have 1,000 by the end of December and 5,000 by the end of January,” Fuller said. “I would love to see this go nationwide.”

Students, meanwhile, say they are upset not only at the potential for violence. Their once low-profile school has almost overnight become the focus of a barrage of media attention, much of it negative, they say.

During lunch hour at the sprawling campus one day last week, they were almost equally divided between those embarrassed that Fountain Valley might become known as a “gay school” and others distressed by the bitter, angry reaction to the support group’s formation.

Caught in the middle, still reeling from the hostility and the publicity, is a small number of gay students and their friends, who had asked to form the group in the hope it would bring “even more awareness, understanding, tolerance and empathy to our campus,” according to their statement of purpose.

“They can’t even do what they set out to do,” Poff said. “What everyone’s doing here now is using these kids as political footballs. It’s pretty incredible right now.”

One alliance member, a gay student who asked not to be identified by name because of the current tensions, said many in the group are feeling overwhelmed, and some are afraid.

“Some of the members’ parents don’t want them to be participating right now, and we’re all trying to be a lot more careful about our safety than before,” he said. “We’re just trying to watch out.”

Such controversy is new to the 2,500-student school, one of seven high schools within the primarily white, relatively affluent district.

Fountain Valley High has gained a reputation for its students’ consistently high marks on college admissions exams and advanced placement tests, and for what police and district officials described as an extremely low level of violence.

The school experienced one major, racially motivated fracas last year that led to the transfers of eight students, the vandalism of its gym in August that resulted in $160,000 in damage, and shifting demographics that have boosted the school’s minority population from 19% three years ago to 39% today.

But Fountain Valley High so far has remained remarkably free of the gang problems beginning to touch much of Orange County.

“It’s a very, very quiet place,” said Sgt. Dan Bean of the Fountain Valley Police Department. “We don’t have many problems there.”

The one exception was the brawl last March near the school’s locker area, when about 20 Asian and white students fought, said Ernst, the principal. One boy was hospitalized briefly after he was stabbed in back of an ear, apparently with a pencil.

But the principal said the major problem at the moment is that turmoil over the alliance and its opponents--which include a student group called the Future Good Boys of America--is making it difficult for students to concentrate on their work. For the most part, Ernst blames outsiders.

“I believe that if forces outside the school--the media and parents--continue to inflame this situation, it just makes it tougher for us to get the kids to settle down and do their jobs,” he said.

“This issue simply has nothing to do with homosexuality, sodomy or anything else that was brought up at the board meeting,” Ernst said. “It has to do with the law and school district policy, which makes it illegal for me to bar a group that meets the conditions if others are already allowed to meet.”

Members of the alliance, its faculty supervisors and several other teachers praised Ernst for his courage in having stood by his decision to allow the group to meet, despite the resulting controversy.

“He’s such a decent man and he has just been crucified over this,” said a 17-year-old member of the alliance, which includes both gay and heterosexual students.

Ernst said he has been gratified by the support from the faculty. “When I got here, I was an outsider,” he said. “But what’s happened, despite all this intolerance now, this situation has really allowed me to be accepted and that has felt good.”

The support group’s opponents also include leaders of several local churches and the Rev. Lou Sheldon, who heads the Anaheim-based Traditional Values Coalition. Dirk Voss, a trustee on the five-member school board and another opponent of the group, says he will vote to eliminate the equal access policy in January.

“I personally am opposed to any sexually oriented type of group on a high school campus, and besides that, these kids are minors,” Voss said.

The other four school board members have not adopted positions so far.

Robert Dodge, 17, is the president of the Future Good Boys group, which has now been given the same status as the alliance under the equal access policy. He emphasized that the group does not condone violence and that its members are not “gay-bashers.”

“We have definitely heard some of the less rational students talking about the things they’d like to do to the kids in the alliance, but that’s not what we’re about,” he said. “We’re trying to stop that. We’re not against the people in the alliance. We just want to help them.”

Fuller, in fact, said his son had answered a phone call at home from a man who said he was a member of the Aryan Nation, offering support to the anti-alliance effort. During another incident, he said, a student asked him “if we wanted a drive-by (shooting) to solve the problem. I told him to get out of here.

“We’re trying to quell the violence, not start any,” Fuller said. “We love these kids, all of them, and we don’t want any of them hurt.”

Despite the tumult, the alliance has continued its weekly meetings, which began in October with a handful of students and have now grown to include about 30. Group members said the majority are heterosexuals who attend in support of gay friends. But at least two Future Good Boys members also go to some meetings and occasionally take notes.

The discussion topics so far have included political issues as well as harassment and how to cope with it, participants said.

“We’re all just supporting each other and learning about the issue,” one said. “This situation probably has shown the need for this group more than anything else could have.”

“So many lessons are being learned here,” said English teacher Chris Baron, who works with Poff as one of the group’s two faculty supervisors. “Regardless of how this turns out, I hope everyone on campus is learning something from this controversy.


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