Legal group defend gay school club

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Trial was held on Monday in an American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) federal lawsuit asking for a permanent injunction requiring officials at White County High School in Cleveland, Georgia to recognise a gay-straight alliance club (GSA).

Administrators at White County High School in Cleveland, Georgia have been blocking the GSA from meeting since the beginning of the 2005-2006 school year while allowing other clubs to meet, a clear violation of the Federal Equal Access Act.

“All we’re asking for is to be treated the same as all the other clubs that the school has been allowing to meet.” said Charlene Hammersen, a 17-year-old lesbian who is one of the founding members of the GSA.

“Harassment and violence are pretty bad at our school, and we think having a gay-straight alliance would help make our school a safer place.

“I don’t understand why a club dedicated to making the school safer for everyone doesn’t get to meet when clubs like the dance team and student council do.”

The federal Equal Access Act requires public schools to treat all non-curricular student clubs equally. Several students from WCHS testified during the trial about other clubs that have been allowed to meet while the GSA, known as PRIDE, has been kept from doing so, including a school dance team, student council, Beta Club, and the prom committee, all of which are non-curricular.

Last year school administrators reluctantly agreed to let the GSA form after 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 club 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 a school dance team and student council – were allowed to meet at WCHS throughout the school year. These clubs weren’t relevant to the curriculum, students don’t get academic credit for participating in them, and participation isn’t required for any course.

“The law is crystal clear about how public schools have to treat student clubs: they have to treat them equally regardless of their viewpoint,” said Beth Littrell, a lawyer with the ACLU of Georgia who represents several members of PRIDE and their parents.

“White County High School has been trying to get around that by saying it has banned all clubs, when in reality it’s been playing favourites and letting clubs that administrators like continue to meet. Students at White County High School have a right to decide for themselves which clubs they want to participate in, and that right has been trampled by the school.”

Last February, the ACLU sued White County School District officials for violating the students’ rights under the federal Equal Access Act and the US Constitution. 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.

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