GSA supporters cautiously optimistic after board votes to allow all clubs
A nearly standing room only crowd applauds the decision of Box Elder School District Board of Education to allow all non-curricular clubs at secondary schools, including a proposed gay- straight alliance.
Sean Hales/Box Elder News Journal
By Sean Hales
Supporters of a proposed gay-straight alliance (GSA) club at Box Elder High School are cautiously optimistic following a meeting last Wednesday where the Box Elder School District Board of Education voted 5-1 to allow non-curricular clubs at secondary schools within the district.
Gloria Hammond, who filed a formal application to start a GSA at Box Elder High School in October, said “I’m excited because things are getting done.”
However, the club’s supporters said the board’s discussion leading up to the vote indicated there might be a fight ahead before the club becomes official.
“They had an issue with the name of the club,” Hammond said. “They may not know that the GSA is a nationally recognized high school club.”
Board member Nancy Kennedy made the motion to approve the policy that would allow non-curricular clubs. During the reading of the policy, she repeatedly referenced a portion—which is drawn straight from Utah state law—that says “A club’s application may also be denied or be required to be changed if the application and/or the club’s activities would as a substantial, material, or significant part of their conduct or means of expression...involve human sexuality.” The requirement also applies to the name of any club.
Brayden Terry, a supporter of the GSA and a close friend to Hammond said after the vote, “I feel like...they hammered so hard on the human sexuality thing.”
One GSA advisor from a school in Central Utah, who wanted to remain anonymous for fear of “rocking the boat” and jeopardizing the club’s existence, said she can’t understand where the concern is.
“That hasn’t kept anybody from being approved in the past,” said the advisor about the club name. “It isn’t about sexuality...I don’t think GSA, in and of itself is [overtly sexual].” The advisor added that the club is simply “students united in support of each other as human beings.”
According to Danielle Watters from the Utah Pride Center, there are 19 known GSAs in the state of Utah, operating under the names gay-straight alliance or queer-straight alliance, and that the name would be considered protected under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
John Mejia, legal counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah, said schools have the right to control speech a little more to make sure the educational environment is not disrupted, but that he doesn’t think the word “gay” in the name of a club rises to that level.
District Superintendent Ron Wolff said at the meeting that there is no moral or value qualification for a club; if it abides by the state’s process and meets the requirements, it will be approved.
In an interview on Thursday following the meeting, Wolff, who will have the responsibility of reviewing clubs’ applications and accepting them or sending them back for revision, said in the case of the GSA, staying within the law could be tricky.
He said the GSA’s organizers will have to “clarify the purpose of the club,” specifically as regards the word “support” in the club’s application. Wolff indicated that the word support, without clarification, could be taken to be in violation of the portion of state law that says a club can not “involve any effort to engage in or to conduct mental health therapy, counseling, or psychological services for which a license would be required under state law.”
“There’s some fairly significant negotiations that have to take place, but they will take place,” Wolff said. “We’ve got to have some movement on both sides toward the middle.”
The board’s vote came following a lengthy public comment period where many spoke in support of allowing non-curricular clubs, and in support of the GSA in particular.
Braxton Burns, a 2011 graduate of Box Elder High School told board members that he was bullied in high school for being gay, and that he spent a week in a coma after trying to commit suicide. Burns continued that several friends from the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community have taken their own lives.
“It’s got to end,” Burns said. “We really need this. We really need this in our community.”
Kathy Wood, who attended the meeting with her partner Jolene Crockett, spoke in favor of allowing non-curricular clubs generally, for educational purposes.
“Without extracurricular clubs or activities, I’m not sure I would have graduated or attended college,” Wood said.
She added that having a GSA at the school would serve an important service. As an employee at the Brigham City cemetery, she said she remembered one year where she buried seven high school students.
“That’s why I retired early,” Wood said. “I couldn’t take it anymore.” She added that if the GSA saves even just one child’s life, it’s worth it.
Bob Bailey, who was Box Elder High School’s Key Club president in 1969, spoke in support of non-curricular clubs, saying they are “a gateway to service.”
Bailey recounted a few experiences in his life and the many different people he met.
“We have to be prepared to deal with people for who they are,” Bailey said. “What do we have to be afraid of? Everybody has a right to a peaceful existence.”
Dori Burt, from Logan, a representative of the group Mormons Building Bridges, said the group, which is not an official church organization, supports forming the GSA, and that members of the church should be the first to show love, compassion and kindness.
“Can we look at any classroom...and decide which ones [children] we are going to move out of our lives...who we won’t provide a safe place for?” Burt asked.
She concluded her remarks with, “Jesus commanded us to love our neighbors, whether rich or poor, sinner or saint.”
Laurie Eccleston, a board member of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) told the board gay teens are often harassed and are eight times more likely than straight kids to commit suicide. She also cited data from the Utah Department of Health showing that Box Elder County’s suicide rate of 13.87 per 100,000 for 10-to-17-year-olds from 2008 through 2012 was the highest in the state. (The UDH warns against drawing conclusions since Box Elder’s data may be insufficient.)
In an email to the News Journal, Eccleston provided a report from a 2009 survey of more than 7,000 LGBT teens conducted by the Centers for Disease Control that contained the following findings: Eight of every ten LGBT students had been verbally harassed at school; four of every ten had been physically harassed at school; six of every ten felt unsafe at school; one of every five had been the victim of a physical assault at school; 61 percent were more likely than their non-LGBT peers to feel unsafe or uncomfortable as a result of their sexual orientation; and more than 25 percent reported missing classes or days of school because of feeling unsafe in their school environment.
No one stood to speak during public comment in opposition to allowing non-curricular clubs, or the GSA specifically.
School Board President Bryan Smith, the only board member who voted against the policy to allow non-curricular clubs, said he thought clubs expanded the role of schools beyond their intent, and could potentially “water down” the education provided in schools. Smith expressed the same sentiment at the board’s first discussion about the policy on Sept. 11.
“To me, the discussion is, where do we want to focus as a district? What should our focus be?” Smith asked.
Zach Atkinson, the non-voting student representative on the board, said he could name at least two students he knew personally whose academic performance had improved after joining one of the school’s service clubs, and questioned how after-school clubs could change the focus of educators during school hours.
The board and the district have maintained that the discussion to allow or disallow non-curricular clubs stemmed from an overarching project started at the beginning of the year to revise all the district’s policies to reflect current realities or come into compliance with state law.
According to a summary from a board meeting on Sept. 11, when the district’s club policy received its first reading, the initial considerations and concerns about allowing all clubs included issues of liability, especially concerning non-sanctioned sports such as lacrosse, water-polo and rodeo. Also, since a teacher-advisor is required to oversee and direct a club’s activities, Wolff said that a potential proliferation of clubs and the resulting strain on staff was something to consider.
The GSA’s supporters said they felt like the application submitted by Hammond changed the conversation about clubs.