The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Gay-Straight Student Group Fights for Equal Treatment

by Michelle Chen

As queer youth in a small town fight for the right to express their identity, they are fueling a national debate over sexual orientation and equal treatment in schools.

June 21, 2006 – The summer months usually provide young people with a respite from teachers, homework and school-day stress. But for queer high-school students in a Bible Belt town in Georgia, a court battle for the right to express their identity is just heating up, fueling the national dialogue over gay rights in the education system.

Last week, a group of teenagers testified before a district court judge that local school officials had violated their legal rights by blocking them from forming a "gay-straight alliance" club. The youth are students at White County High School in Cleveland, a town of about 2,000 people in northern Georgia.

Backed by the American Civil Liberties Union, they sought an injunction based on the federal Equal Access Act, which requires equal treatment for all student extracurricular activities in public schools.

"We figured, you know, maybe that the principals would be mean about it," said Kimberlee Gould, a 17-year-old lesbian and co-founder of the group. "But we never figured that the whole county would blow up about it.... And going to court now – we never figured any of this would happen."

Gay-straight alliance groups have mushroomed in schools across the country to facilitate communication on queer issues and reduce the tensions leading to bullying and bias. Frustrated with constant harassment at school, the White County students sought to form their club in early 2005 to educate peers and help dispel stereotypes.

PRIDE and its supporters contend that school administrators are abetting the systematic mistreatment of queer students and creating a climate of hostility and isolation.

They say they never predicted that their most formidable challenge would come not from fellow students but from the adults controlling their educational environment.

After students petitioned the school’s administration for months to gain approval for establishing the gay-straight alliance club, PRIDE, or Peers Rising in Diverse Education, began meeting in April 2005. But by that summer, school authorities apparently found a way to shut down the club without violating Equal Access statutes: preventing all student clubs from meeting on school grounds – supposedly on "equal" terms.

"Sadly, there are some schools that are so determined to discriminate against [gay-straight alliances] that they’re willing to sacrifice the educational opportunities of all their students," said Ken Choe, an attorney with the ACLU’s Lesbian and Gay Rights Project. The case follows a similar legal challenge waged by the ACLU against school authorities in Boyd County, Kentucky, which also blockaded a gay-straight student group by adopting restrictions on all campus extracurricular clubs.

In its legal complaint, the ACLU described the school’s policy as intentionally discriminatory and selectively enforced. While PRIDE, which now has about ten core members, was forced to meet off-campus at a local church, the plaintiffs argued that groups like the cheerleading squad and honor society congregated freely on school grounds.

School authorities apparently found a way to shut down the club legally: preventing all student clubs from meeting on school grounds – supposedly on “equal” terms.

Eliza Byard, deputy executive director of the New York-based advocacy organization Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), said the school had clearly violated federal law. "The moment that a school has any non-curricular clubs," she said, "they must allow all points of view to be represented."

The school district’s legal maneuvers, Byard said, suggest that the administration is "hoping the issue will go away," working to obstruct the debate until students fighting for the gay-straight alliance simply graduate.

PRIDE and its supporters contend that school administrators are abetting the systematic mistreatment of queer students and creating a climate of hostility and isolation. When they first sought permission to start the club, student leaders say they were subjected to special hurdles that less-controversial groups do not face. School officials, according to plaintiffs’ accounts, required that the students submit extensive written explanations of their plans, including a justification of their reasons for starting a gay-straight alliance, along with "a list of proposed members, a club faculty member, and a list of proposed by-laws."

The administration also publicly aired its negative stance, according to the complaint, when district Superintendent Paul Shaw indicated in local television and radio interviews that school authorities had serious apprehensions about permitting the gay-straight alliance.

After the club was finally approved, the assistant principal was to sit in on every meeting – a move that Choe said was intended to chill student discussions.

Neither Shaw nor the school district’s attorney provided comment in response to The New Standard’s requests, but in a brief filed with the court, the defendants argued that the school acted in the student body’s best interest by curtailing PRIDE. The brief noted that news of the club’s formation had generated disruptive "public controversy," including angry reactions from students opposed to the club, as well as bitter protest by the notoriously anti-gay Kansas-based congregation Westboro Baptist Church.

One mother called it "a true disappointment that there are people in the education field that are so ignorant."

School officials also claimed they had imposed the blanket restrictions on clubs in order to limit student activities to those "related to the curriculum" and to preempt clubs "without any serious purpose." According to the brief, the clubs that had continued to meet under the new policy, including the dance team and a youth council on substance-abuse and teen-pregnancy issues, were sufficiently "curriculum related" to fit with the school’s "renewed focus on academics."

Savannah Pacer, who joined her daughter, PRIDE co-founder Kerry Pacer, as a plaintiff in the case, attributed the stonewalling of the club to the administration’s "pettiness" and lack of sensitivity. Shaw’s negative public statements, in her view, reveal that as a local official, he pandered to the community’s prominent fundamentalist churches. "[It’s] a true disappointment that there are people in the education field that are so ignorant," she said.

The PRIDE activists assert that in the insular community surrounding White County High, queer youth are exceptionally vulnerable. In the years leading up to PRIDE’s founding, they say, just going to class was a routine nightmare for queer students. They would typically face a hail of epithets and harassment, including spitting, shoving and being pelted with food, according to anecdotes related in the ACLU’s legal complaint.

Yet students and parents argue that an unresponsive administration has inflicted deeper wounds. They charged in the complaint that the school forbade both Kerry Pacer and her sister Lindsay from wearing T-shirts displaying pro-queer logos. They also recalled that the school repeatedly failed to respond to complaints from family members about student mistreatment, and ignored or even punished students after they spoke up.

Plaintiffs claim that derogatory treatment from both students and the administration escalated after students began openly organizing the club. Administrators reportedly ignored students’ complaints that posters advertising the club had been ripped down. Some school staff members looked on as bullies slammed PRIDE students into walls and hurled insults like "piece of shit lesbian."

In addition to its claim under the Equal Access Act, the ACLU has also accused the school district of "deliberate indifference" to queer students’ hardships and of censoring students’ speech and conduct.

While PRIDE has become a focal point for queer-rights advocacy nationwide, activists say what is striking about the case is just how common their struggle is.

According to GLSEN’s 2005 study on school climate for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth, nearly two-thirds of surveyed students reported feeling unsafe in school because of their sexual orientation. And victims of anti-queer abuse tended to have lower academic performance.

But GLSEN also found that while oppression roils within school walls, so does empowerment – through gay-straight alliance clubs that raise awareness and improve school climate and safety. To help seed such projects, GLSEN provides leadership development programs for queer and straight youth.

Yet GLSEN’s Byard noted that despite the strides young activists have made, the experience of PRIDE shows that before students can tackle issues of how queer identity relates to the education system, gay-straight alliances face the challenge of just "fighting for their own right to meet."

To Kimberlee Gould, even if their lawsuit fails, the PRIDE activists have at least found a space to voice their views. Now that the debate has shifted from campus into court, she said, "everyone can see where we’re coming from. Because we can actually tell them where we’re coming from – instead of their just assuming."

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

This News Article originally appeared in the June 21, 2006 edition of The NewStandard.
Michelle Chen is a staff journalist.

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