Let's Celebrate Gay-Straight Alliances!

Today, on National Gay-Straight Alliance Day, I am ready to celebrate! But first I must confess: I wish I didn't have to hear about another school district denying students their right to form the clubs that provide so much support and are protected by law.
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Today, on National Gay-Straight Alliance Day, I am ready to celebrate! But first I must confess: I wish I didn't have to hear about another school district denying students their right to form the clubs that provide so much support and are protected by law. At Lambda Legal we deal with threats to civil rights and addressing unfairness to LGBT people and people with HIV nationwide. It's a big agenda, and there's plenty of work to do -- defending GSAs should not have to be part of it, because school districts should be doing the right thing in the first place.

Here's why: gay-straight alliances are student-powered, school-based noncurricular groups associated with healthier school environments, tolerance, and understanding. GSAs are also associated with decreased harassment, which is associated with better school engagement and achievement.

What's not to like?

GSAs are generally protected by the venerable First Amendment of the federal constitution, and even more specifically protected by the federal Equal Access Act, passed over a quarter-century ago. In the 1990s Lambda Legal represented Anthony Colín, a student who founded a GSA, with club member Heather Zeitin, and their GSA, in a case against the Orange Unified School District Board, which had denied students permission to become a recognized student club and meet at El Modena High School in California. The school even forbade them from referencing "gay-straight alliance" in their club name!

The Colín case marked the first time a school was ordered to allow a GSA to meet on campus. Since 2000 it's been invoked many, many times, all around the country, when students' right to form a GSA has been questioned. That's notable, but keep in mind that when it was decided, the case was basically enforcing federal law that had already been around for over a decade and a half.

Yet the need to defend GSAs and the rights of LGBTQ students continues. One of the most recent cases is Pratt v. Indian River Central School District in upstate New York, where Lambda Legal sued the district and several of its employees in 2009. Charlie Pratt not only faced bullying and harassment, but he and students before him were denied the right to form a GSA. Charlie's younger sister Ashley similarly tried to start a GSA to help address the school climate -- but was likewise denied. Mere days after we filed suit, the district announced that it would allow Ashley to form a GSA, and Lambda Legal is pressing forward with the students' other claims.

Lambda Legal was invited to address congressional staff in a packed briefing room on Capitol Hill last March, where we pressed for safeguards against harassment, bullying, and discrimination. I said that Lambda Legal should never have to bring another GSA case. LGBT students and their peers, teachers, and school-official allies should be able to learn and grow with dignity and respect -- and move on.

But no. The next month, when Lambda Legal worked with the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN) to support the annual Day of Silence, we received more than 100 calls for assistance from students and student groups blocked from participation by school officials. The schools quickly caved in the face of our letters citing the basic, decades-old law. But how many students did not reach us and were deprived of their expressive rights and blocked from helping improve the school climate?

A few weeks later, on June 14, 2011, Arne Duncan, Secretary of Education, sent a "Dear Colleague" policy letter to public schools nationwide. As the Department of Education emphasized:

Harassment and bullying are serious problems in our schools, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) students are the targets of disproportionate shares of these problems ...

High levels of harassment and bullying correlate with poorer educational outcomes,
lower future aspirations, frequent school absenteeism, and lower grade-point averages.
Recent tragedies involving LGBT students and students perceived to be LGBT only
underscore the need for safer schools.

Gay-straight alliances (GSAs) and similar student-initiated groups addressing LGBT
issues can play an important role in promoting safer schools and creating more
welcoming learning environments.

Secretary Duncan concluded:

The Equal Access Act's requirements are a bare legal minimum. I invite and encourage you to go beyond what the law requires in order to increase students' sense of belonging in the school and to help students, teachers, and parents recognize the core values behind our principles of free speech.

I emphasized that final point because it is so important, and I join in its sentiment. Today, on the first National GSA Day, let's move beyond the requirements of a venerable old law. Let's establish, celebrate, and renew climates that respect all our youth and help keep them learning and flourishing in every school.

And if you are a student reading this because your school denied the formation of a GSA, call our Legal Help Desk at 1-866-542-8336, or contact us online.

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