Last year, Lance Sanderson’s story garnered national attention. The senior at Christian Brothers High School in Memphis was told that he could not bring a boy from another school to the homecoming dance. Because he then brought the school negative publicity, he was asked not to return to school at all — he spent his senior year taking online courses, deprived of any extracurricular activities or even the chance to walk at graduation.
Now, he and his parents are suing CBHS for breach of contract, emotional distress, and violations of Title IX.
In a complaint filed Tuesday morning in Tennessee state court, Sanderson lays out the way the school humiliated him, punished him, and ultimately deprived him of his senior year — all because he wanted to invite a boy to a dance. He didn’t even end up attending that dance, let alone ever break a single rule that the school could identify.
In fact, the CBHS Code of Conduct specifically states that students should feel “safe, secure, and accepted” regardless of their identity, including their “sexual orientation.” The school’s treatment made him feel anything but.
Asking well in advance
Chris Fay, who was Sanderson’s advisor as an underclassman and the CBHS principal, is the primary antagonist in the story. When Sanderson first came out as gay to him as a freshman, Fay acted as if he were “ashamed, embarrassed, and disapproving of Lance’s sexual orientation,” according to complaint, and advised him not to tell others. Sanderson ignored the advice and was openly gay throughout his time at CBHS.
Fast forward to the summer of 2015, when Sanderson sought answers as to whether he would be able to bring a boy from another school to the homecoming dance. As an all-male prep school, all of the girls who attend the dance come from other schools, so it was only a question in regard to Sanderson’s sexual orientation. Principal Fay responded by making “a number of inappropriate, false, and derogatory statements to Lance about gay people, including but not limited to that gay couples have a divorce rate higher than heterosexual couples, gay relationships are less stable and usually short term, and compared Lance to a gay couple in Texas in which one boyfriend murdered the other.”
I wonder if stress contributes to sleep loss.
— Lance Sanderson 👈🏻 (@LanceMSanderson) July 28, 2015
Following that conversation, Sanderson emailed Fay to point out that a Jesuit priest at another school allowed a same-sex couple to attend a homecoming dance and CBHS should do the same. Fay replied back, “He [meaning the Jesuit priest] is not the authority to which CBHS is accountable. While his interpretation allowed a same-sex couple to attend their prom, I really struggle with our permitting you to do the same.”
Sanderson published that response from Fay on Twitter, and that’s when the backlash began.
His counselor, Cindy McRae, who had been supportive of his request to bring a male date, contacted him to let him know to take down the email from Twitter. A few days later, the school informed Sanderson that he could no longer take photographs for the school, which frequently had paid him for his work. He hadn’t violated any policy, but he was told that losing the job opportunity was punishment for publishing Fay’s email. Eventually, he was told he could continue taking photos, so long as he never publicly mentioned the request about the homecoming dance.
I can't wait to start my last year of school in Memphis today!
— Lance Sanderson 👈🏻 (@LanceMSanderson) August 5, 2015
The week of the dance
On September 21, the Monday before the dance, Sanderson stayed home sick from school. It just so happened that on the daily announcements that day, CBHS announced that students could bring girls from other schools, but “for logistical reasons,” not boys. Sanderson was the only student who had made such a request, and he received no notice of the announcement before the entire school was told of the official restriction. He only found out when a friend texted him after hearing the announcement.
But Sanderson had several more opportunities to hear it, as it repeated every day that week until the dance. He also posted it on Twitter, which promptly drew outside attention, including an online petition on his behalf.
Thankyou to everyone for your continued support! I appreciate all of the positive remarks and sharing!
— Lance Sanderson 👈🏻 (@LanceMSanderson) September 24, 2015
The repeated announcements and attention that the policy drew prompted many students to bully him. Sanderson knew that they specifically targeted him; as the complaint recounts it, “it was a form of daily punishment — a reminder of Lance’s request to bring a male date and a reminder of Lance’s sexual orientation. This conduct by the school was designed to single Lance out. Lance felt bullied by both the school administration and by some of the students.”
That Friday, the day before the dance, the school held an all-student meeting, which “was an attempt by the school to stifle the ground swell of support Lance had received from those who signed the Petition and from many students at the school.” Fay pressured Sanderson and the students who support him to “cease using social media to express their dissatisfaction with the school’s decision.” He specifically blamed Sanderson for causing a problem.
On Saturday, Sanderson attended his first pride parade, but not the dance.
My friends and their dates are at Homecoming. I am not. I hope that no one else will ever have to go through this. pic.twitter.com/OeNUxYn2s5
— Lance Sanderson 👈🏻 (@LanceMSanderson) September 27, 2015
After the dance, banishment
The fact that the dance had come and gone did not end the CBHS’s negative treatment of Sanderson. It seems that the way the school saw it, as long as he was a student there, he would draw it more negative publicity.
When I arrived at school today, the administration told me to stay home for the week.
— Lance Sanderson 👈🏻 (@LanceMSanderson) September 28, 2015
When Sanderson returned to school Monday morning after the dance, Brother Chris Englert, president of CBHS, took him aside and told him that he had brought bad press to the school, such that “the Brothers have received a lot of complaints,” and they have been called “fags.” He ordered Sanderson to leave school immediately for what Assistant Principal T. Durant Fleming told his father would be a “cooling off” period. Though Sanderson had not been punished, suspended, nor expelled, the school’s lawyers made clear to his parents that he was not welcome in the school. He was counted as absent for that full week.
Following that week and the school’s fall break, the family decided he would return to school.
As of right now, I will be at CBHS tomorrow. I'm very nervous.
— Lance Sanderson 👈🏻 (@LanceMSanderson) October 8, 2015
It was Sanderson’s last day at school, and not a good one. Faculty questioned why he was there and made it clear they didn’t want him there. Students likewise mistreated him, calling him names like “fag,” and generally mocked and harassed him.
CBHS agreed, seeing as how his parents had paid tuition, to let Sanderson complete his coursework online at home. He was not allowed back on campus, he could not participate in any extracurricular activities, and he was not even welcomed back to walk for graduation. The school mailed his diploma to his lawyer.
“It was pretty lonely,” Sanderson told ThinkProgress. “I was alone basically in my room 24/7. I didn’t really go out. I didn’t really hang out with people. I didn’t do much. Just a lot of school work and studying.”
He occasionally texted with a few CBHS friends, but said he probably met up with them only about five times after that October. He specifically avoided even the temptation to watch graduation. “I stayed up very late the night before so that I wouldn’t have to be awake or tempted to watch the livestream,” he said. “They mailed my diploma.”
Finally finished my last AP Exam and graduated. I'm looking for internships this summer. I'd appreciate any connections you have. Thanks!
— Lance Sanderson 👈🏻 (@LanceMSanderson) May 17, 2016
A Blue Demon at the end of the tunnel
For as miserable as his senior year was, Sanderson’s future is bright. Shortly after graduating and accepting admission to DePaul University, he connected with a DePaul alum on LinkedIn and got a job offer that moved him to Chicago for the summer. His isolation taught him how important it was to find other ways to connect with others, recommending other kids in environments that don’t welcome them do the same. “It was a great outlet to meet people with similar interests,” he explained. “LinkedIn is good if you’re into work.”
“It’s just good to be active in a community. I think in high school I never really was, I was afraid to. It’s definitely worth pursuing.” Now, a month into his first year at DePaul and continuing to work, Sanderson describes himself as “very busy.”
— Lance Sanderson 👈🏻 (@LanceMSanderson) August 28, 2016
Sanderson said he hopes that the lawsuit “reminds CBHS, and other schools like it, that discrimination is not acceptable in today’s society, especially for schools that receive federal funding, schools that say they don’t discriminate, that’s pretty important.”
“I’m hoping that what happens to me doesn’t happen to someone at CBHS in the future or someone at other schools like it.”
For Sanderson’s lawyer, Howard Manis, the point about the nondiscrimination statement is at the core of the lawsuit, which accuses CBHS of breach of contract. He explained to ThinkProgress, “The school holds itself out to be a nondiscriminatory entity as it relates to sexual orientation, so that is — if not directly incorporated — implied in the contract for services.” Because Sanderson was out, this was something that was important to his family. “The parents made that decision in part because of that promise, and clearly that’s not a promise that carries much weight.”
Manis hopes that people who hear Sanderson’s story appreciate that this is about a kid just trying to get an education. “This is who he and the family turned to to educate them and this was the message that was sent.”