Published Online: February 28, 1996

Gay Students' Request Spurs Board To Cut Clubs

The Salt Lake City school board voted last week to eliminate all extracurricular clubs rather than allow the formation of a gay students' support group at one of its high schools.

The decision was the latest effort by a school board to limit the discussion of homosexuality in public schools. Earlier this month, parents and educators in Merrimack, N.H., filed a federal lawsuit against a school board policy that bars the promotion of homosexuality as "a positive lifestyle alternative."

The Salt Lake City board voted 4-3 on Feb. 20 to eliminate extracurricular clubs beginning in the fall. Board members said they were constrained by a 1984 federal law, the Equal Access Act, to either recognize the proposed Gay-Straight Alliance at the city's East High School or eliminate all clubs that were not curriculum-related.

At least two board members said they voted with the majority not because of opposition to a gay students' group but to protest their lack of authority to limit controversial clubs.

"This is not a hateful vote," said D. Kent Michie, a board member who voted to eliminate clubs. "Congress and the Supreme Court have left all school boards in this country in a box--you either allow all clubs of any type, no matter how controversial, or you deny all noncurricular clubs."

Karen Derrick, another board member who voted for the ban, said she is not opposed to providing support services to gay students, but believes the board should have latitude over clubs.

Such a controversy would not arise over "a Chinese-checkers club," she said. "But this was more sensitive. Unfortunately, it gets perceived nationally that we are intolerant."

Clifford Higbee, the board member who proposed the measure, said at the board meeting that he objected to a gay students' group on moral grounds.

"I don't believe our young people should be placed in a position to deal with these kinds of issues," local news reports quoted him as saying. Mr. Higbee could not be reached for comment last week.

Board President Mary Jo Rasmussen, who voted against the measure, said the gay alliance would be appropriate to serve the emotional and educational needs of gay students.

"We have a philosophy that we will strive to meet the needs of all students," she said.

Where's the Beef?

In the Salt Lake City district, the board's policy will lead to the elimination of such groups as the key club, Students Against Driving Drunk, the Young Democrats, the Young Republicans, and the Young Poets Society. There is even a beef club at East High, whose members reportedly gather to eat steak and burgers and attend monster-truck rallies.

"When you look at all of the clubs that we are going to disallow, you are gutting the very heart of our secondary schools," Ms. Rasmussen said.

The debate in Salt Lake City began in December when a group from East High School, one of three high schools in the 25,000-student district, sought to form the gay students' group on campus. Administrators referred the request to the school board.

Students at other high schools in Utah are considering such clubs, leading one conservative lawmaker in the heavily Mormon state to introduce a bill that would require parental consent for participation in school clubs.

The Equal Access Act was adopted to guarantee that student Bible and religious clubs would be treated the same as other extracurricular activities. Efforts by some districts to bar religious clubs by drawing a curricular distinction between such groups and all other student clubs led to a 1990 U.S. Supreme Court decision that defined which clubs could be considered curriculum-related.

In Board of Education of the Westside Community Schools v. Mergens, the high court ruled 8-1 that the Equal Access Act was triggered at any secondary school that had clubs that were not related directly to the curriculum. Any public school that allowed non-curriculum-related clubs, such as chess clubs or scuba-diving clubs, created a so-called limited public forum and thus could not discriminate based on the content of a student group's speech, the court held. (See Education Week, June 13, 1990.)

'Don't Do It'

In New Hampshire, meanwhile, parents and educators backed by the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups sued the Merrimack school district Feb. 15 over its policy banning the promotion of homosexuality.

The policy, adopted by a 3-2 vote last July, bars any instruction or counseling that "has the purpose or effect of encouraging or supporting homosexuality as a positive lifestyle alternative."

The suit in U.S. District Court in Concord charges that the policy "casts a pall of orthodoxy" over the Merrimack schools and violates teachers' First Amendment rights to free expression.

Because no guidelines have been issued for the policy, the lawsuit contends that teachers have been forced to censor themselves. They have deleted, for example, a video about Walt Whitman and have removed Shakespeare's Twelfth Night from English classes because it touches on gay themes.

"It limits discussion and does so in a way that is very vague," said Jon Meyer, a lawyer for the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union who is aiding in the suit.

Shelly Uscinski, one of three board members who voted for the policy, acknowledged that she has urged teachers that when they are in doubt about whether something violates the policy, "don't do it."

"I think the intent of the policy is very clear," she said. "If you have in your curriculum Heather Has Two Mommies," then the policy is being violated, she said, referring to a controversial children's book that explains gay families.

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