SULLIVAN, Ind. — A quiet Indiana community known for its parks and corn festival has become the latest setting for the debate over gay rights and bullying after several area residents, including some high schoolers, proposed holding a non-school sanctioned "traditional" prom that would ban gay students.

School officials and many residents of Sullivan, a city of about 4,200 near the Illinois border, have scrambled to distance themselves from the controversy caused by the group's plans and some strong, anti-gay remarks made by one of its members.

Diana Medley, a group member who is a special education teacher in another school district, said she believes being gay is a choice people make and that gays have no purpose in life.

"I just ... I don't understand it," Medley said, referring to whether homosexuals have a purpose in life. She was speaking to Terre Haute television station WTWO at a Sunday planning meeting for the anti-gay dance.

Medley's comments have been widely circulated on social networking sites and in news coverage of the story, and have led to online campaigns to get her fired. A petition on Change.org calling for her dismissal had generated more than 18,000 signatures from as far away as the United Kingdom as of Friday, and a Facebook page supporting a prom that includes all students had more than 27,000 likes.

The fallout has surprised many residents of the coal mining town, which is known in the region for its attractive parks. Some say they think the issue has been blown out of proportion.

"We are conservative around here. That's just the way of this town," said Nancy Woodard, 60, who owns the Hidden Treasure Exchange store. "In any town in this county, you'll find four or five churches no matter how small the town. ... The Bible is a big belief system here.

"Everybody has jumped on this little town. To me, there isn't any need for it," she said.

David Springer, the principal of Sullivan High, said talk of the "traditional" prom began in January after a student began circulating a petition demanding that gays be allowed to participate in the grand march at Sullivan's April 27 prom. The grand march is when couples are presented at the dance.

Springer said Sullivan High's official prom is the only prom the school supports and that it doesn't exclude anybody, including gay couples.

"I've been to eight grand marches and ... we always had girls go out together, and a lot of times they just didn't have a date," Springer said. "Our prom is open to all of our students."

He said the school, which has 545 students in grades 9-12, has never banned same-sex pairs from attending the prom.

"I don't know how you can have a dance and exclude certain people," he said.

Some critics say Medley's statements and the campaign to hold the "traditional" prom speak to a larger climate in which gay students fear being bullied and aren't welcome.

"When someone says your kid has no purpose, how do you think that makes a parent feel?" asked Annette Gross, Indiana state coordinator for Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), whose son came out at age 19.

Aaron Gettinger, a 20-year-old Stanford University student who graduated from Sullivan High in 2011, said he isn't surprised by the push for a "traditional" prom that would ban gay students. He said he was bullied daily because he is gay and encountered viewpoints similar to those espoused by Medley.

"It's just the way that it is," he said. "It's part of a way of thinking that the rest of the country needs to know still exists and goes on."

Those behind the push for a "traditional" prom declined to comment, and it's unclear whether the event will still happen.

School officials and the minister of a church where planners met Sunday have worked to distance themselves from the flap.

Dale Wise, the church's senior minister at Sullivan First Christian Church, said his church turned off its fax machine and took its website offline Tuesday because both were the target of hate mail and pornographic messages.

Wise said the planning group met at the church because it allows community meetings to take place there, but he said the church "had no affiliation whatsoever" with the "traditional" prom effort.

Springer said his staff has been inundated with calls and emails about Medley, who does not work in Sullivan's Southwest School Corp. district. She teaches in the Northeast School Corp., a neighboring district.

Neither Medley nor Northeast officials returned calls seeking comment. The district issued a statement earlier this week saying Medley was "expressing her First Amendment rights" to free speech and that "the views expressed are not the views of the Northeast School Corporation and/or the Board of Education."

Northeast's superintendent, Mark A. Baker, said in another statement issued Thursday that he "cannot emphasize enough the extent to which we are dismayed and disappointed with the statements made by a school employee."

Sullivan isn't alone in its struggles over how to handle same-sex couples at proms. A small southeast Missouri school district is facing a threat of legal action over a policy barring same-sex couples from attending prom together.

The Southern Poverty Law Center on Thursday accused the Scott County Central School District in Sikeston of discrimination and gave the district until Feb. 25 to revise the school dance policy or face a potential lawsuit.

Sullivan High School freshman Te'Airra Walters, 15, said it shouldn't be a big deal for a same-sex couple to attend prom together. She said she doesn't like the negative attention the controversy has attracted.

"People from other schools around here are saying Sullivan is trashy," she said. "I think it's pretty much ridiculous."

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Associated Press writer Charles Wilson in Indianapolis contributed to this story.

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  • Joel & Jesse -- 2006

    I went to a religious high school [in Concord, N.H.] and I was the first person to ever bring a same-sex date to their prom. It took some convincing, but I was very close with our principal and she ended up allowing it. It was a fun experience overall, and we didn't encounter any discrimination whatsoever. Generally, it was all just support or indifference, and ended up being a lot of fun, despite the initial nerves while actually walking in.

  • Kendra & Kayla -- 2012

    The whole experience was quite wonderful. It being my senior prom I had hoped for it. Kayla was although over the age limit only by a couple months, so I emailed my principal and told him my reasoning why I thought she should be allowed to go. We eventually talked face to face and he gave me permission. I was so absolutely happy and excited, especially since I had already bought my dress. I would do it all over again if I had to.

  • Tyler & James -- 2012

    I'm on the left (Tyler) and my boyfriend is on the right (James). After my Catholic high school refused to allow us to attend my prom together, we found our local state alliance organization was setting up a pride prom. The date was April 21st and the location was the Holiday Inn Airport in Evansville, Indiana. The red ribbon on my lapel is a red ribbon given to all those who attended. It was truly a magical night for just the two of us.

  • Steph & Jackie -- 2007

    We didn't get too much grief but were definitely gossiped about quite a bit. Fast forward 6 years (almost exactly) and we're still together. I couldn't love her more. High school feels like a million years ago. For everyone out there going through it now, it truly does get better. There is life outside of High School and it's awesome!

  • Daunasia & Alyssa -- 2012

    Boston Alliance of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Youth (BAGLY) prom couple.

  • Annalise & Katarina -- 2012

    [Hancock Junior Senior Prom at Orlando Gardens in St. Louis] was our first fully public outing as a couple, and we had so much fun. The dance was amazing and we were some of the last people left on the floor. We got a little trouble the next Monday for having kissed at the dance, but I couldn't have cared less. It was so, so worth it.

  • Nichole & Shelby -- 2012

    Boston Alliance of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Youth (BAGLY) prom couple.

  • Jon & Steven -- 2009

    Here is Steven, my boyfriend at the time, and I after prom at the W Hotel in Dallas.

  • Whitney & Alyssia -- 2012

    Our prom was located in Hutchinson, Kansas on April 28th. My experience with taking my girlfriend to prom was amazing; my promenade walking down the stairs we got loud cheers and people commenting how cute we were and brave to do that in such a small town. The dance was a memory that I will live with forever. Not only was it a great experience, but I got to show my pride and take my girlfriend. Overall we had an amazing time. Our picture of us at prom kissing showed up on a big screen so my whole school staff was VERY supportive. Which amazed me since I live in little ol' Kansas.

  • James & Joshua -- 2012

    Actually, this was me and my boyfriend James at our school's winter formal. Prom's not till June!

  • Kelsey & Laurie -- 2011

    At our high school there is the tradition of the "Grand March," where all the grads walk up and down the street on the day of our prom in front of our school for all of our teachers, parents and the whole city to see. Usually the pairs are of one girl and one guy, but i knew U couldn't walk with a boy and wear a dress, so i asked Laurie. It was scary to be honest, as i had just come out to my parents and by walking with Laurie and wearing a suit i would clearly be outing myself to my whole graduating class and city, but I knew i could do it with some help from my friends and family. I had a great time, and even though i knew that people didn't approve, we didn't care because we truly enjoyed ourselves. We were officially the second all-girl couple for the Grand March where at least one of us was clearly gay, and we both feel very proud of that because maybe future graduating couples of all forms might be able to be themselves on such an important day.

  • Andrew & Daniel -- 2012

    I, Daniel -- the bow-tie guy -- am the administrative assistant at New Tech here in Bloomington, Ind. and also a "one-year out proud man" who took my legal life partner to our high school prom this year. My first prom in general and to take the man I love: priceless. It took me till I was almost 29 but I finally got my prom night! The students were loving and accepting of us and overjoyed to celebrate with us the Civil Union we had just had performed in Urbana, Ill. the day before. We were greeted on the prom "red carpet" with a round of applause from faculty and students alike. Fabulous!

  • Monica & Liz -- 2012

    We had a great time but our feet got tired from the dancing!

  • Michael & Josh -- 2012

    We went to my senior prom together [in Colora, MD] and felt 100 percent supported by my school it was the best night of high school! Not one person said anything about us dancing together. I was finally accepted at my school.

  • Aly, James & Taylor -- 2011

    Aly, James, Taylor celebrate at the first Alternative Prom for LGBT teens and friends at Fountain Street Church of Grand Rapids, Mich.

  • Dillan & Roxas -- 2012

    Boston Alliance of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Youth (BAGLY) prom couple.

  • Leigh M. & friends -- 2011

    In 2011, Leigh M. a senior from the Grand Rapids Public Schools after years of asking fellow "streeter" students to produce a LGBT Prom at the downtown Grand Rapids Fountain Street Church, she decided to do it herself.

  • Jess & Brandon -- 2012

    Boston Alliance of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Youth (BAGLY) prom couple.

  • Austin & Boyfriend