Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in a letter to national educators released Tuesday has affirmed that, under the law, Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs) in schools must be afforded the same rights and protections as other student clubs.
In the letter, which you can read in full here, Duncan says that GSA clubs can play an important part in student welfare at public secondary schools:
Harassment and bullying are serious problems in our schools, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) students are the targets of disproportionate shares of these problems. Thirty-two percent of students aged 12-18 experienced verbal or physical bullying during the 2007-2008 school year;1 and, according to a recent survey, more than 90 percent of LGBT students in grades 6 through 12 reported being verbally harassed — and almost half reported being physically harassed — during the 2008-2009 school year.2 High levels of harassment and bullying correlate with poorer educational outcomes, lower future aspirations, frequent school absenteeism, and lower grade-point averages.3 Recent tragedies involving LGBT students and students perceived to be LGBT only underscore the need for safer schools.
Gay-straight alliances (GSAs) and similar student-initiated groups addressing LGBT issues can play an important role in promoting safer schools and creating more welcoming learning environments. Nationwide, students are forming these groups in part to combat bullying and harassment of LGBT students and to promote understanding and respect in the school community. Although the efforts of these groups focus primarily on the needs of LGBT students, students who have LGBT family members and friends, and students who are perceived to be LGBT, messages of respect, tolerance, and inclusion benefit all our students. By encouraging dialogue and providing supportive resources, these groups can help make schools safe and affirming environments for everyone.
He affirms that blocking such groups is unlawful under the 1984 Equal Access Act which requires secondary schools that receive federal funds to maintain equal access for all student extracurricular groups:
In 1984, Congress passed and President Ronald Reagan signed into law the Equal Access Act, requiring public secondary schools to provide equal access for extracurricular clubs. Rooted in principles of equal treatment and freedom of expression, the Act protects student-initiated groups of all types. As one of my predecessors, Secretary Richard W. Riley, pointed out in guidance concerning the Equal Access Act and religious clubs more than a decade ago, we “protect our own freedoms by respecting the freedom of others who differ from us.”4 By allowing students to discuss difficult issues openly and honestly, in a civil manner, our schools become forums for combating ignorance, bigotry, hatred, and discrimination.
The Act requires public secondary schools to treat all student-initiated groups equally, regardless of the religious, political, philosophical, or other subject matters discussed at their meetings. Its protections apply to groups that address issues relating to LGBT students and matters involving sexual orientation and gender identity, just as they apply to religious and other student groups.
The letter also notes that Department of Education general counsel Charles P. Rose has issued guidelines that again reinforce “principles that prevent unlawful discrimination” in giving permission for school clubs and also notes that schools are beholden to this not just by the Equal Access Act but also the First Amendment to the U.S. Constituion:
Today, the U.S. Department of Education’s General Counsel, Charles P. Rose, is issuing a set of legal guidelines affirming the principles that prevent unlawful discrimination against any student-initiated groups. We intend for these guidelines to provide schools with the information and resources they need to help ensure that all students, including LGBT and gender nonconforming students, have a safe place to learn, meet, share experiences, and discuss matters that are important to them.
Although specific implementation of the Equal Access Act depends upon contextual circumstances, these guidelines reflect basic obligations imposed on public school officials by the Act and the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The general rule, approved by the U.S. Supreme Court, is that a public high school that allows at least one noncurricular student group to meet on school grounds during noninstructional time (e.g., lunch, recess, or before or after school) may not deny similar access to other noncurricular student groups, regardless of the religious, political, philosophical, or other subject matters that the groups address.
I encourage every school district to make sure that its administrators, faculty members, staff, students, and parents are familiar with these principles in order to protect the rights of all students — regardless of religion, political or philosophical views, sexual orientation, or gender identity. I also urge school districts to use the guidelines to develop or improve district policies. In doing so, school officials may find it helpful to explain to the school community that the Equal Access Act requires public schools to afford equal treatment to all noncurricular student organizations, including GSAs and other groups that focus on issues related to LGBT students, sexual orientation, or gender identity. Officials need not endorse any particular student organization, but federal law requires that they afford all student groups the same opportunities to form, to convene on school grounds, and to have access to the same resources available to other student groups.
Again, to read the letter in full please click here.
To read the new guidelines issued to schools please click here.
Gay-Straight Alliances are student-run clubs that aim to create safe and supportive environments for LGBT and straight ally children. They allow LGBT and questioning youths to talk to their straight-identifying peers and, in this way, the clubs can build understanding, tolerance and acceptance.
Instances of school boards trying to dodge allowing GSAs are unfortunately common. Last month the school board at Clovis, New Mexico, voted to ban all extra-curricular clubs from meeting during school hours or using school resources. This, the New Mexico branch of the ACLU says, was suspicious as it came right after a request was made to form a club in support of LGBT pupils. Read more on that here.
A 2009 survey conducted by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) found that GSAs appeared to have a direct impact on stundets’ feelings of wellbeing and may reduce the likelihood of harassment related to LGBT identity. Without support groups, nearly 9 out of 10 kids reports anti-LGBT harassment in schools. Read more here.
TAKE ACTION: KIDS MUST BE ABLE TO SHOW SUPPORT FOR THEIR LGBT CLASSMATES