Washington County School District Revises Unconstitutional Policies, Allows Formation of Gay-Straight Alliances

Affiliate: ACLU of Utah
April 26, 2010 12:00 am

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SALT LAKE CITY, UT – Under pressure from the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah Foundation, Inc. (ACLU), the Washington County School District (WCSD) agreed last month to implement and enforce district-wide revisions to its policies for forming non-curricular student clubs. These revisions made it possible for students at four WCSD high schools—Desert Hills, Dixie, Pine View, and Snow Canyon—to form “Gay-Straight Alliances” for the first time in the schools’ history.

“Gay-Straight Alliances” (GSAs) are non-curricular student clubs focused on promoting tolerance of all people regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. In Fall 2009, students at several WCSD high schools reported that principals refused to allow GSAs on their campuses. The ACLU was also informed that, at several schools, administrators explicitly discouraged faculty from acting as advisors to GSAs.

With the application deadline for the 2010-11 school year looming, the ACLU determined that preemptive action was necessary. “To the extent we can avoid lengthy litigation by surfacing early in the process to educate school and district administrators about their constitutional obligations under the First Amendment, we prefer that,” said ACLU Legal Director Darcy Goddard. “Most educators seem to understand the need to create a safe and tolerant environment for all students, regardless of their sexual orientation, political views, religion, race, or any other factor.”

In February, the ACLU contacted, by letter, the principals at each WCSD high school from which complaints were received. The ACLU advised the principals that actions reported by the students appeared to violate the students’ constitutional and statutory rights. The letters further informed the principals that the ACLU was actively advising the students of their rights. The letters also requested copies of all school policies relating to club formation, copies of all student club applications for the past three school years, and information showing which applications were approved or disapproved, and why. Each letter was copied to WCSD administrators.

Policies produced by three WCSD high schools contained numerous requirements that threatened to silence the free speech rights of students with unpopular or minority views. For example, one school required the signatures of 30 students, unanimous approval of an “executive council” comprised of other students, approval by the principal, and then a majority vote of the school’s faculty before a club could be approved; neither the “executive council” nor the principal or faculty was provided with any objective criteria to guide their decisions. Another school required a minimum of 75 student signatures and parental permission for each student before an application would be considered.

Once they were informed of these problems, WCSD administrators worked cooperatively with the ACLU to address them. For the first time, WCSD required that all high schools adopt WCSD’s objective, neutral district-wide policy for club formation. The district’s decision required several high schools to abandon those long-standing, school-specific requirements challenged by the ACLU. WCSD administrators also required all high schools to use the same deadline for club applications (April 15), and to communicate to all their students the new deadline and the new district-wide policy for club formation.

At the ACLU’s request, WCSD administrators also arranged a district-wide information session led by our Legal Director. “Everyone was interested to know, I think, that this body of law actually developed in response to religious groups being excluded from public meeting spaces based on the content of their speech,” said Goddard. “Our primary goal was and is for school officials to understand and respect the important First Amendment rights at stake when any government official refuses to allow a group to speak or assemble based on the government’s fear of what they might say or do.”

Some school officials questioned whether students in GSAs might violate state law by, for example, discussing sex outside marriage or contraception. As Goddard explained, “Stereotypes about certain groups cannot be used as an excuse to refuse access; there is no more reason to think students in GSAs will talk about those issues than to think that the football team will, or the chess club.”

Following the meeting, students at four WCSD high schools submitted applications to form GSAs at their schools. Applications have been approved at all four schools: Desert Hills, Dixie, Pine View, and Snow Canyon. Tuacahn approved a GSA in Fall 2009.

Jude McNeil, Director of Youth Programs for the Utah Pride Center, stressed the importance of allowing LGBTQ youth and their allies form GSAs. “Coming out as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender in high school can be a difficult and traumatizing experience for many students. GSAs allow a safe space for them and their allies to be themselves and support each other. GSAs are also an important tool for encouraging acceptance for all students, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity, and educating youth more generally about the LGBTQ community.”

The Utah Pride Center is traveling to Washington County in May to provide information and training to students involved in the newly formed GSAs, and to any other students or community members who are interested in learning more about GSAs or other youth-oriented LGBTQ education efforts. For additional information contact Jude McNeil at jude@utahpridecenter.org.

The ACLU continues to monitor events in WCSD, and notes that some issues remain unresolved. The ACLU nonetheless applauds the district for its responsiveness thus far. “WCSD administrators were instrumental in making the schools comply with their constitutional obligations to these students,” notes Goddard. “The students are ecstatic that, after so much time and effort, they are finally being recognized.”

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