This was all much ado about nothing," Dr. Phillips High School principal Gene Trochinski said last week on the telephone. No truer words were ever spoken about a homecoming parade.
Unfortunately for Trochinski, it was the third-year principal himself who started the controversy by announcing two floats would be prohibited from participating in the Nov. 7 parade.
The disagreement began Nov. 3 when members of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and Young Republicans Club were informed that Trochinski had decided their floats were inappropriate for a homecoming parade. The Christian Athletes' idea, as presented on its entry form, involved one of its members using the power of the Lord to save other students entangled in sin. Actors would hold up signs that read "sex," "suicide," "depression" and "drugs." Then they would rip the signs apart as other actors danced and strummed cardboard guitars.
The 40-member Young Republicans, a club formed several months ago, wanted to re-enact the toppling of the Saddam Hussein statue in Baghdad last spring. Students in black T-shirts, identified by the word "evil," would force actors to kneel in front of the statue until the Young Republicans arrived and dispersed Saddam's guard. Then they would topple the dictator.
Students submitted their forms to Richard Dunlap, a Dr. Phillips social studies teacher and homecoming organizer. Dunlap said he would approve the skits, but he felt he had to tell Trochinski about the content. Trochinski disapproved, saying he wanted homecoming to be low-key. "He said he didn't want to start a controversy," says Melissa Mack, a Dr. Phillips senior and Young Republican president. "He didn't want to offend people and have to deal with angry parents and the media."
Trochinski didn't get his wish. After leaving the sixth-period meeting, one of the students (nobody will say who) contacted the Orlando Sentinel. James Coney, an American history teacher who sponsors both student groups, contacted the Liberty Counsel, a nonprofit, conservative legal advocacy group.
The result was a media backlash and threats of federal lawsuits that attracted national attention. Television cameras packed the restaurant where the two clubs were preparing the floats, in spite of Trochinski's ruling. "They stuck a camera in my face," said sophomore Alyssa Morrill of the Christian athlete organization. "I was blown away. When I came to school Wednesday, people came up to me and said, 'I saw you on TV.' I said 'Wonderful, but I don't care about TV. I want our float to get in.'"
By Wednesday afternoon, Trochinski had relented, saying he had misunderstood the way Saddam and Jesus would be presented. He thought they might both be on the same float. (Some students refute the notion that he was truly confused.)
The Christian athletes' float could participate as designed, but the Young Republicans had to find an adult to drive their float, a red, white and blue pickup. They were also required to shoot Silly String instead of water pistols.
"It's a shame that it takes the threat of a federal lawsuit in order for students to exercise their right to free speech," said Larry Walters, a civil rights attorney and member of the Orange County ACLU. "What this means is that students who are well organized, mobilized and have access to an attorney will be allowed to speak. Those without easy access to lawyers will be silenced."
I love a parade
Reaction to the hullabaloo the night of the parade was mixed. "Their ideas have nothing to do with a pep rally," said Sivan Grosman, a senior and part of the Science Honor Society, whose members were wrapping a pickup in aluminum foil. "This is not 9/11. It's not time for all that."
Several of the boys in her group disagreed. "I don't think Muslims will be offended, because Saddam oppressed them," said junior Allen Record.
David Howe agreed: "People can be offended by anything."
"People might be offended because we're putting tinfoil on this car," said Devegh Painter, another junior, turning toward the pickup. "A tinfoil activist might say, 'Save the aluminum.'"
In a dark field close to Bill Spoone Stadium, on the north side of the campus, the Young Republicans and Christian Athletes prepared their floats next to each other. The Ford Ranger had two American flags angling out of the back. The Christian Athlete float was a 16-foot car trailer hooked to an SUV. A large hand-painted sign with the words "Let Jesus Rock Your Night Away" walled off one side of the trailer. The 10-foot papier-mâ?°ch? Saddam Hussein statue lay hidden beneath a tarp on the floor of the float, hitching a ride with the Christians to midfield for the toppling.
Meanwhile, Christian athlete Holley Cooper pondered how a club devoted to Jesus could be Jesus-free.
"How are we supposed to represent our club without Jesus in [our presentation]?" she asked. "The key word is 'Christian.' It's not fair. There's freedom of speech for everybody. But if they would have kept our float out of the parade, that would mean the [First] Amendment doesn't pertain to us."
Parked beside the two floats was a large blue van with surfboards on top. This float belonged to members of the school's surfer club. How did they feel about the float controversy? "We just surf," said one of the students, who identified himself as the club's president but declined to give his name. "I'm independent. I'm not Republican or Democrat."
"We don't give a crap," one of the surfers said.
Another surfer, Adam Plummer, disagreed, saying, "It's not like we don't care," but he was interrupted.
"No. We don't care," the surfers concurred.
The 16 floats in the parade then pulled out, circling around the blacktop track surrounding the football field. They passed one by one in front of the home side bleachers, which were about three-quarters full. Many students stayed away, I discovered, because the Panther football team is 1-8 this season.
The surfers went first, handing out leis to a group of girls. For the parade the surfers took their boards off the van, did cartwheels and hopped on the boards, pretending to ride the blacktop. Next, a car decorated like a panther drove by, followed by the Drama Club, whose members were dressed as the Flintstones. The Latin Club wore togas and gladiator uniforms. German Club members waved a German flag.
Then came the Christian Athletes, one of the most animated groups. The skit went as planned. Several actors held up their "sex" and "depression" signs. One girl cheered when the "drugs" sign was presented, but it was impossible to say if she was pro-drug or if she was simply moved by the spirit of the moment.
Neil Renois, the 17-year-old president of the club, pointed at the sky and folded his hands across his chest. The other actors then flung their cards on the ground and everybody danced. One guy lay on his back and strummed a black cardboard guitar.
The Young Republican skit began with a recording of President Bush defending the Iraqi war. "Trusting in the restraint of Saddam Hussein is not an option," was among the Bush snippets played over the sound system.
The skit was difficult to see from field level because the DJ tent blocked the view of the Saddam statue. The replica of the Iraqi dictator was about midfield. There was a lot of running around and shooting of Silly String; at least one of the good guys wore a George W. Bush mask. Then someone pulled a rope tied around Saddam's neck and the gold-painted statue tumbled over. Eventually, several students picked it up and hauled it away. Fans in the stands gave a big roar of approval.
At the end of the night, the Young Republicans received the Most Creative award; the Christians received Most Spirited; the Drama Club received Best Overall. The Surf Club came up empty -- though not without trying to manipulate the outcome. "Say we won first place," Plummer encouraged me as he walked by.
Principal Trochinski (who missed the parade because he was in Boston) was right: The night was much ado about nothing. "I don't know what the big stink was about," Coney, the history teacher, told me before the awards were handed out. "It's sad that you have to fight to get something like this during a time of national crisis. We've gone past common sense. We're hurting the nation rather than helping it."
After a pause Coney added, "I wouldn't say tonight was much ado about nothing. This was about free speech. That is not 'nothing' as far as I'm concerned."