What Part of ‘Constitutional Rights’ Don’t Schools Get?
Why do school officials continue to believe they can block LGBT students and their supportive peers from forming Gay/Straight Alliances?
It’s a salient question given that, it seems, this kind of denial of rights is still happening and with alarming frequency.
A recent story involves two 11th graders at Kathleen High School, Polk County, Florida, who made a request that they be allowed to form a Gay/Straight Alliance (GSA) to combat anti-LGBT stigma and bullying in school and offer support to LGBT and questioning kids. The two students, both 17, have been working on the club since November 2012, yet the school has so far failed to deal with their request.
The two students, Rory Teal and Brenna Pelland, reached out to the ACLU after they researched other cases where schools have attempted to block GSAs, and the ACLU then sent a public records request to investigate the cause of the delay.
Administrators had told Teal and Pelland that the long delay was caused by a backlog of club applications. The ACLU reports that their public records request reveals that since July 2012 the total number of requests filed amounts to a staggering two.
The ACLU has now sent a letter to the school and district as a reminder that a number of federal lawsuits have seen the courts uphold a student’s rights to form clubs like a GSA. The letter outlines in detail the laws at play here:
On February 22 and April 3, 2013, Principal Rosenau suggested that the delay was due to the many club applications that had been filed and needed reviewing, yet our understanding is that only two club applications have been filed since July 2012. The school’s delay and non-response to the GSA’s club application amounts to a de facto denial.
As explained by the United States Department of Education, the Equal Access Act … guarantees students the right to form and participate in school clubs, with wide latitude given to the proposed content of their discussions. Where schools have refused to allow GSAs to form or have otherwise denied these groups equal treatment, federal courts in Florida and across the country have repeatedly held them to be in violation of the law.
The letter also outlines that the right to form a GSA is protected under the First Amendment (if other clubs are allowed), and that GSAs have demonstrably and consistently helped improve a school climate where there is evidence of anti-LGBT bullying, benefiting all students.
The letter calls on county officials to respond by April 29, 2013 that the club can go ahead. Presumably, legal action may be launched if that deadline is not met.
While in itself, the case above may seem like a relatively minor disagreement, the denial and foot-dragging when it comes to GSAs is part of a wider trend in America, and even in other countries like Canada, where certain school districts move to block or disrupt GSAs, sometimes unlawfully and sometimes within the law by abandoning all school clubs simply so they do not have to allow a GSA.
Indeed, another rather more high-profiled case concerning Lake County School Board saw the board vote this week to postpone action rather than comply with established law and allow middle school students to form a GSA, apparently still fearing a backlash from the Religious Right and pastors like Gerald Bustin, whose odious statements like, “Their goal is to infiltrate our schools to teach children the gay agenda to elevate it and give it more visibility in the schools,” have been given undue attention in the media as though they are of equal stature to pro-equality, evidence-backed statements.
Indeed, this issue has even fed into federal legislation. The Student Non Discrimination Act (SNDA), recently re-introduced by Rep. Jared Polis, would enumerate sexual orientation and gender identity and expression in federal bullying legislation. It would also serve to further emphasize that students cannot be prevented from forming GSAs and similar clubs. The legislation also has Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) as a chief sponsor, and has in the past shared significant Republican support.
But legislation can only go so far. School boards must have the courage to stand up to the manufactured controversy a handful of religious conservative parents or commentators might throw up in the face of what should be a non-controversial club, and until they do, this issue will persist while LGBT kids continue to feel marginalized and discriminated against.
What is pleasing, however, is that those kid are now increasingly challenging such discriminatory decisions, showing that they have the courage of their convictions even if certain school administrators and school boards do not.
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