The U.S. Department of Education on Tuesday warned school districts across the country against taking steps to ban students from forming gay-straight alliances and similar support groups in their schools.
“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,” the “Dear Colleague” letter from U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan reads.
Citing 1984’s Equal Access Act, created to prevent discrimination against religious groups at schools, Mr. Duncan said schools must treat all student-initiated groups equally, pointing out the benefits of groups that address issues related to students who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender in particular, and noting the verbal and physical abuse these students sometimes experience.
“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,” he wrote. “By encouraging dialogue and providing supportive resources, these groups can help make schools safe and affirming environments for everyone. But in spite of the positive effect these groups can have in schools, some such groups have been unlawfully excluded from school grounds, prevented from forming, or denied access to school resources.”
Although these groups have been around for more than 20 years, students attempting to create gay-straight alliances still face many hurdles. In Clovis, N.M., this year, the school board voted to ban clubs that didn’t have a tie to schoolwork from meeting during the day, though their sights were set on one club in particular: a gay-straight alliance Clovis High School students wanted to form. In May, the school board relented, in part because of the threat of a lawsuit from the New Mexico chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.
On Monday night, the school board in West Bend, Wis., agreed to allow students at West Bend High School to form a gay-straight alliance if students who had been previously barred from doing so dropped a federal lawsuit against the school district.
Mr. Duncan’s letter to school districts was accompanied by legal guidelines from the Education Department’s General Counsel Charles P. Rose. It follows an October 2010 letter to districts about how bullying, in particular of students who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender, may violate students’ civil rights. (“Bullying May Violate Civil Rights, Duncan Warns Schools,” Oct. 26, 2010.)
“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,” Mr. Duncan wrote.
A survey of nearly 7,300 students nationwide by the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network in 2009 found that at schools with gay-straight alliances, students were less likely to hear epithets including “faggot” and “dyke,” and expressions using “gay” in a negative way were less common.
In addition, only about half of students at schools with these clubs said they felt unsafe because of their sexual orientation, compared with about two-thirds of students at schools without gay-straight alliances. However, less than half of students surveyed said their school had an alliance or similar group. More than 4,000 gay-straight alliances are registered with the New York-based GLSEN.
The first such group was created by Kevin Jennings when he was a teacher in 1998. Last week, Mr. Jennings left his post at the department as assistant deputy secretary of the office of safe and drug-free schools.
The groups have been challenged ever since. For years after a group of students tried to start a gay-straight alliance at one Salt Lake City high school in the 1990s, the school board banned all student clubs from forming. It rescinded that policy in 2000. Some students in Corpus Christi, Texas, are still working with their school district on getting permission to have a gay-straight alliance permanently.
In those cases, and many others, the American Civil Liberties Union has sued on behalf of students. Now the organization has a website devoted to giving students advice about forming gay-straight alliances.
The letter could help students avoid such legal battles. It was welcomed by the GLSEN.
“Secretary Duncan’s Dear Colleague letter is a clear signal to schools and school districts that they may not discriminate against students who seek to form gay-straight alliances,” Executive Director Eliza Byard said.
“We are grateful to the Department of Education for supporting students’ rights, attempting to prevent discrimination and affirming the positive contributions gay-straight alliances make to the life of our schools, right alongside other noncurricular clubs.”
In another recent show of support for gay students, the Education Department recently hosted its first Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Youth Summit along with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
There, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed results of a survey that found students who are gay or bisexual are more likely than heterosexual students to smoke, drink alcohol, use drugs, and take other risks.
“This report should be a wake-up call for families, schools, and communities that we need to do a much better job of supporting these young people. Any effort to promote adolescent health and safety must take into account the additional stressors these youth experience because of their sexual orientation, such as stigma, discrimination, and victimization,” said Howell Wechsler, director of the CDC’s division of adolescent and school health, in a statement last week. “We are very concerned that these students face such dramatic disparities for so many different health risks.”
A version of this article appeared in the May 10, 2017 edition of Education Week