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400 protest Largo gay support group

More than 400 people packed a Pinellas School Board meeting Tuesday to condemn a gay support group at Largo High School and to urge the board to prohibit such programs elsewhere.

Some of the roughly 50 speakers supported the Gay and Straight Alliance, formed in January 1987.

But many others, some of whom drove from Tampa, lambasted the board for allowing the group to meet during school hours and for paying a part-time counselor to meet with homosexual students who say they have been harassed by other students.

"If one (law) is broken, then what's the difference if other laws are being broken?" asked Tara Poole, a Clearwater High School senior who likened the alliance to a club for murderers who want to feel better about their crimes.

Poole, 17, is a member of the Fellowship of Christian Students club at Clearwater High.

The packed room, which had the audience spilling into the halls, was the culmination of a statewide campaign by the Florida Family Association, whose members have bombarded the board with letters and calls since a story about the alliance appeared in the Times in February.

David Caton, president of the Florida Family Association, is a Hillsborough County resident.

The Largo High alliance was formed in response to requests by students at Largo High. Since if falls under district guidelines for such programs, it did not require approval by the School Board or superintendent.

The board took no action on the matter Tuesday.

Before the speakers began, board Chairwoman Lucile Casey read a letter from the board to the Times and the Tampa Tribune. It said the board supports the alliance and any other group that contributes to student safety.

Superintendent Howard Hinesley said the goal of the alliance is to ensure a safe environment for all students, regardless of sexual orientation. While many speakers wanted to argue about the evils of homosexuality, Hinesley said preserving the alliance is foremost a safety issue.

Largo High principal Barbara Thornton said she wanted to correct false information distributed about the alliance. She said the group can meet during school hours because it is not a club, but a support group, one of eight at the school.

"Without the alliance, I think many of the students who are in the support group would have continued to feel harassed and unsafe, and it would have continued to be a block to their learning," Thornton said.

The counselor who meets with the alliance has been paid $742 since it formed, officials said.

Despite the board's public support for the alliance, some speakers made emotional pleas to disband the group.

"The Bible is very, very clear. Homosexuality always has been an abomination to the heavenly father," said John Buckles, a Tampa resident.

Later, Buckles, who has no children, said he attended the meeting because he "doesn't want this in Tampa."

Colby Chance Parrish, who graduated last year from Largo High, said he wasn't surprised by the negative response to the alliance, which he helped form. In fact, he expected it sooner.

"I'm not mad at the people who don't accept me," said the 19-year-old Parrish, who is gay. "I just wish they would understand where I'm coming from."