Orono's Teachable Moment

Gay students and their friends at Orono High School have more reason than most to feel bittersweet about their return to classes this fall. On the one hand, school administrators recently decided to grant the student-run Gay/Straight Alliance the same rights accorded other "unofficial" student groups. On the other hand, the students nearly had to sue the school district to gain such status.

Formed nearly two years ago in response to one young lesbian's need for support, the GSA aims to teach tolerance of gays and lesbians, as well as provide support for queer kids who are out at school. Administrators initially treated the alliance as they might any other recognized organization, such as the National Honor Society or Students Against Drunk Driving, allowing them to meet on school grounds and during the school day. But when GSA members wanted to distribute fliers in the hallway and use the school intercom to promote the group's meetings, they suddenly encountered resistance. Bringing in guest speakers and putting up posters and exhibits in the school's display case were all activities forbidden them. "We've had to be very creative in the ways we get the word out about our meetings," says English teacher and GSA faculty advisor Karen Erdman.

Instead, group members held a "day of silence" to bring attention to the oppression of queer people everywhere. They continued to hold biweekly meetings, sometimes drawing as many as 30 people. And they circulated a petition among students, asking for support of the group's efforts to publicize its meetings and existence at school. Approximately 200 of the more than 700 students at Orono High signed the petition.

Administrators remained unmoved. The GSA, after exploring its options, approached the Minnesota Civil Liberties Union about filing a lawsuit to get equal access. The group, MCLU lawyers agreed, had a case: The GSA had been given permission to hold meetings on school grounds, therefore achieving the same status as any other recognized group. It alone, however, had been barred from publicizing its events at school--a violation of the federal Equal Access Act, which forbids schools from discriminating against any noncurricular group on the basis of "religious, political, philosophical, or other" views. In other words, if a school grants prerogatives and privileges to one noncurricular student group, it must extend those rights to all student groups.

In doling out such permissions, though, a school may legally make distinctions between curriculum-related activities and noncurricular clubs, and at the eleventh hour last month--less than 24 hours before the MCLU was poised to file a lawsuit on the GSA's behalf--the Orono school district used that distinction as an escape hatch. Administrators approved a student-activities policy that drew a distinct line between curricular and noncurricular clubs. "Curriculum-related" groups, according to the Orono policy, can continue to post notices in hallways, use the school's P.A. system, and maintain listings in school publications. Noncurricular groups, including the GSA as well as Students Against Drunk Driving and the National Honor Society, are restricted to using a non-school-sponsored bulletin board.

The new policy treats the GSA as an equal, but severely circumscribes the rights given previously to Orono's noncurricular groups. "This was a group of students who wanted to promote diversity and tolerance," says MCLU director Chuck Samuelson. "It blows my mind that a school district would react in this way."

District administrators should be ashamed. Rather than grant the GSA equal access to the school's usual communication channels, they have instead taken the reactionary route: squelching every noncurricular group's access. Good schools introduce students to the plurality of world's peoples and opinions, teaching kids to respect differences. The district missed a teachable moment: Instead of embracing tolerance, Orono dealt a blow to all its students--gay and straight.

 
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