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Gay-straight group forms at high school

But the Newsome High principal adds a requirement: parental permission.

By S.I. ROSENBAUM
Published September 15, 2005


LITHIA - In a social studies classroom at Newsome High School, 37 students gathered Wednesday to form the school's first Gay-Straight Alliance.

The club is now official - over the protests of parents who were trying to stop it from forming.

But Newsome's Gay-Straight Alliance will have to follow a rule that doesn't apply to any other club on campus. All the students in it have to get their parents' written permission to join.

Principal Rebecca Anderson created the rule after getting phone calls from parents concerned that students would use the club to talk about sexual issues, school spokesman Steve Hegarty said.

"She thought it would be wise to take this extra step to make sure the parents knew what was going on," Hegarty said. "It seemed like a reasonable safeguard."

Sandy Davis, who was among the parents concerned about the Gay-Straight Alliance, said she wasn't satisfied with the compromise.

"I'd rather be the person to talk to my children about sexual issues," said Davis, who has two sons at the school. "School is not the place."

Davis said parents tried to meet with the principal as a group, but Anderson would not hold the meeting. She said Anderson told them she'd spoken with parents one on one and knew their concerns.

The compromise rule didn't please groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union either.

Michael Pheneger, who chairs the Tampa chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said placing a special restriction on only one club might violate the federal Equal Access Act.

"It seems to me that the whole idea of equal access is equal requirements," he said. "Singling out one club for parental permission seems to me an effort to discourage that club."

ACLU lawyer Rebecca Steele said the law prohibits schools from restricting clubs on the basis of the speech at meetings.

"If they require parental consent for this club, they'll have to for all clubs," she said.

The requirement might discourage students who most need a place to discuss issues of sexuality and gender, said Nadine Smith, executive director of Equality Florida.

Children can face as much harassment from parents over being gay as they do from classmates, Smith said.

"How's that kid going to get a permission form signed?" she said.

By requiring parental permission, Smith said the school is "cutting off a valuable service to students - perhaps the ones who need it most desperately."

Parents opposed to the Gay-Straight Alliance wanted it to meet without official school sponsorship, outside of school hours and off school grounds - which, according to school rules, would mean it would not be a club at all.

Otherwise, Davis said, the club should become a "tolerance" club without a specific focus on sexual orientation.

"If you're going to teach tolerance, teach tolerance about being nice to everybody," she said.

Davis said that one of her sons has suffered discrimination throughout his life because he has a cleft palate.

"It's ridiculous to sit around and complain about being picked on because of sexual preference when you have kids like (my son) who are picked on for no reason," Davis said.

She said that Anderson's decision to require parental permission was not enough.

"That doesn't mean a thing to me," she said. "You have parents that aren't making such real great decisions ... I do not think the club has a place in the school system at all."

Vulnerable students would be drawn to the Gay-Straight Alliance, which she said the gay community was trying to place in the school.

--S.I. Rosenbaum can be reached at srosenbaum@sptimes.com or at 813 661-2442.

[Last modified September 15, 2005, 01:04:09]


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