Thursday, June 16, 2011

Gay-Straight Alliance in West Bend School Approved - But It Shouldn't Take a Lawsuit to Support LGBT Youth

On Monday, the board of the West Bend School District narrowly voted in favor of allowing a Gay-Straight Alliance at their high school. The ACLU of Wisconsin was there to live-tweet from the meeting (you can see the tweets on the @ACLUofWisconsin Twitter page). Many LGBT rights advocates are applauding the victory this week. Unfortunately, the school board’s narrow vote came about, not because it was simply the right thing to do for equality and freedom of expression and association, but because a potentially costly lawsuit has forced them to acknowledge that the law is against them.

When the school board originally voted in May to not allow the club official recognition, lawyers on behalf of students who wanted to start a Gay-Straight Alliance filed a lawsuit in federal district court to overturn the board’s decision on the basis that it violated both federal equal access protections and first amendment rights.  As a public school that receives federal funding, the West Bend School District must not have policies that discriminate against students or deny them basic rights. 

Students at West Bend have been trying to organize a GSA for nearly a decade but have faced one barrier after another (the legal complaint tells the students’ compelling story). It is unfortunate that it took a lawsuit for the school board to make a decision that recognizes all student clubs. But their decision could have been better. They could have voted unanimously in support of the club. They could have taken a strong public stand against discrimination and bullying.

On Monday, the West Bend School Board barely approved a decision that should have been made in support of their diverse student body back in 2000. But from this point on, we expect the best in accommodation and support for the GSA in West Bend. The West Bend School district needs a real process to not just approve but cultivate student clubs and promote leadership development in a way that is clear, fair and consistent. Teachers who champion diversity should be applauded, not criticized. Perhaps school board seats in the future will be filled by community members who represent and protect all students, rather than a narrow ideology. 

The school board vote got media coverage on the AP wire, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, TMJ-4, Fox News 6 (both with video) and WISN. The Department of Education also recently reminded public schools that Gay-Straight Alliances have the right to organize.