At the beginning of this school year, Ohio Advocates Youth Leadership Council member Ilya and her friend created their school’s first ever GSA (Gay Straight Alliance) club. Things have been going well – they’ve had a steady group of peers coming to their meetings, created a facebook page, compiled valuable resources to share, and have captured the support of their Principal. They’ve even started to plan themed awareness events and put together a list of speakers they would like to invite to their meetings. Not bad for a brand new, never-before-established student group. Until…
According to last month’s (November 2012) Lake Local Board of Education meeting minutes, Board Member Jon Troyer “commented on the Gay Strait [sic] Alliance Club formation (club centered on sexual preference) and that there is no benefit for such a club and wanted to submit the club’s existence at Lake for Board approval”. It is recorded that Member Troyer made a motion “to include Gay Strait [sic] Alliance Club formation as an agenda item and take action to approve or disapprove”. Fortunately, the other Board members took the proper position and none seconded the motion. But now there was an unflattering focus on the student group and they needed to make their voice heard.
With about a dozen supporters, and equipped with identifying stickers and the ACLU of Ohio’s Students! Know Your Rights handbook, Ilya and her mother took to the December 2012 local Board of Education meeting. When the time came for individual comment, Ilya reminded the Board members of the Equal Access Act, noting that if they want to ban the GSA, they would have to ban all non-curriculum related school clubs, including the ski club, chess club, and yes, even the Fellowship of Christian Athletes club.
Ilya’s mom spoke of the values of having a GSA in the school – all backed up by respected published studies, and ended with a passionate plea for the safety of all students.
But of course this wouldn’t be a suburban Ohio local Board of Education meeting without some borderline hostile opposition. When his name was called to speak, one father apologized to the Board members that he wasn’t prepared to speak but had come directly from a basketball game that night after hearing that the issue of the GSA student club was going to be discussed, and believed it was important enough from him to attend and voice his opinion. (Although this was a public meeting I did not videotape other individuals that I either did not know or had permission from, or who were not elected/public school officials. So although I have no video of the opposition but I assure you their words can be corroborated by those in attendance).
The father was concerned that, “little by little the community’s values are being corroded.” He turned his comments toward Ilya, asking her directly if she believed it would be alright to have a marijuana smoker’s student group. The Board President interjected, reminding members of the public to address their comments to the Board. This apparently emboldened another person in the room to ask to speak, (although he had not followed protocol by completing the form to address the Board). He was granted the request to speak nevertheless, and went on to ask the Board when they draw the line for students groups, asking if they would allow “a NAMBLA student group or a nudist student group”. At this point, there wasn’t much control over the room and many of the anti-GSA folks began to speak over each other.
Finally, Board Member Troyer made a motion, “not for an up or down vote” the existence of the GSA, but to review the group. Here’s the video:
Besides the pride of seeing Ilya and her mom address the Board, my favorite part of the meeting was the awkward silence – nothing but crickets – when a second was requested but none followed.
In the end, regardless of how the other individual Board members felt, they rightly recognized that banning a GSA student group was not within their jurisdiction. For now. What we do know now is that there will certainly be a spotlight on the student group and we’ll need to be more vigilant about the opposition. Wish the GSA luck with their upcoming endeavors and we’ll keep you posted!