Group files lawsuit against school gay club ban

Illustrated rainbow pride flag on a pink background.

The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a lawsuit in federal court against officials at White County High School in Cleveland, Georgia for illegally banning a gay-straight alliance club (GSA).

“I’ve been assaulted at school twice and called names more times than I can remember, and I know gay students who have had to drop out of our school because the harassment was so bad. We need a gay-straight alliance because it would make our school safer for everyone,” said Charlene Hammersen, a 17-year-old lesbian who is one of the founding members of the gay-straight alliance. “Being a safe place for its students is something that White County High School should want.”

Last year WCHS administrators reluctantly agreed to let the club form after several months of stalling when the ACLU of Georgia stepped in and negotiated on the students’ behalf. The students, who wanted to start the club to address rampant anti-gay harassment at the school, named the gay-straight alliance PRIDE (“Peers Rising in Diverse Education”).

A few days later, school officials announced plans to ban all non-curricular student groups in the 2005-2006 academic year. PRIDE hasn’t been permitted to meet on campus this school year, but several other clubs, including “Shooting Club” and a school dance team, continue meeting at WCHS even though they don’t participate in activities relevant to the curriculum, academic credit is not provided for participation in them, and participation in them isn’t required for any course.

“It’s frightening to me that my daughters have to go every day to a school that is so indifferent to their rights and their safety,” said Savannah Pacer, whose daughter Kerry is the president of PRIDE and whose other daughter Lindsay is also a member of the club. She added, “No parent should have to wonder whether their school would even bother to do anything if other students harass or assault their children.”

The ACLU sued White County School District officials for violating the students’ rights under the federal Equal Access Act and the U.S. Constitution. The ACLU also asked the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia to issue a preliminary injunction requiring the school to let all non-curricular student groups start meeting again immediately.

“White County High School has been picking and choosing which clubs it likes and which ones it doesn’t in clear violation of federal law,” said Beth Littrell, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Georgia who represents several members of PRIDE and their parents. “Students should be able to be part of the gay-straight alliance, just as they’re being allowed to participate in the shooting club.”

The federal Equal Access Act requires schools to treat gay-straight alliances as they would any other school group. Federal courts have repeatedly ruled in favour of GSA’s where schools tried to block their formation, upholding students’ right to form the groups in Salt Lake City, Utah; Orange County, California; Franklin Township, Indiana; and Boyd County, Kentucky.