'Sexual' school clubs decried
Petitioners ask the School Board to ban Gay-Straight Alliances that meet in several high schools. It's a thorny free-speech issue.
By MELANIE AVE
Published December 14, 2005
TAMPA - An effort to ban Gay-Straight Alliance clubs from Hillsborough County schools accelerated Tuesday when a group of parents wheeled a child's wagon to the front of a School Board meeting.
Inside the wagon were petitions, wrapped in red ribbons, signed by about 1,100 people who object to the school district's allowing Gay-Straight Alliances. The petitions asked board members to ban the clubs, which meet some school days in a handful of Hillsborough high schools, including Newsome and Brandon.
Alice Wilkinson, who has two children at Newsome, delivered the petitions and urged board members to learn more about the clubs. She said she represents parents who believe the "sexually oriented" clubs are inappropriate for students and violate the district's policy of teaching abstinence.
"We are not a group of right-wing anything," she said. "It's so easy to jump to the conclusion we are against gay people."
Gay-Straight Alliances are common in high schools around the nation, where they are allowed under federal laws that protect the free speech of students. If schools allow some nonacademic clubs, including those in which students study the Bible, they cannot discriminate against other clubs.
Board members did not respond directly to Wilkinson or the petitions. They said a district committee is studying all special-interest clubs.
Board member Candy Olson said she has not formed an opinion about whether Gay-Straight Alliances should be allowed in the schools.
"I'm going to have to research it," she said.
Board member Jennifer Faliero, who represents southern Hillsborough where many of the worried parents live, said she doesn't like the use of the word "gay" in connection with the clubs.
"I have a concern because it's children," she said. "We're talking about kids under 18. I don't think it's appropriate to have a club that's sexual in nature meeting on school campuses.
"That's not what we are about."
Supporters of the clubs say their purpose is not to promote gay lifestyles but to offer students an outlet to discuss bullying and tolerance and to seek out support from others.
When Nadine Smith, director of Equality Florida, heard of the campaign to remove the clubs, she was angry.
"These people ought to be ashamed of themselves," she said. "These clubs help students get support to deal with the kind of bigotry that they are experiencing in school.
"If these bigots think they're going to storm-troop into the schools and make life harder, we'll definitely stand up with those students to help."
The parents' objections already have had an impact.
They spurred district officials to form the committee that began looking at all interest clubs this month. Special-interest clubs include the gay groups as well as chess, dance and Bible organizations. Academic groups like the National Honor Society, or service organizations like Sertoma, are not part of the committee's work.
Superintendent MaryEllen Elia said the committee is exploring what impact the clubs have on academics and whether better defined policies are needed to govern them.
"We have some legitimate concerns from parents," she said. "We need to review those. We also need to have some consistency."
Rules on clubs vary from school to school.
Some campuses allow students to meet during class time while others only allow their discussions during lunch or before or after school.
Most clubs require a faculty sponsor and a stated purpose.
Wilkinson said she does not think the gay clubs are protected by law, but realizes the district could remove all special-interest organizations from the school day.
"We knew we would have to work within the system," said Wilkinson's colleague, Allan Trovillion. "We are parents who are concerned about all students. We want a policy that is well thought out by the board so there's not a lot of variability."
The issue over gay clubs heated up at Newsome this fall when parents heard of plans by some students to start a Gay-Straight Alliance there.
The principal allowed the club's formation because it met minimum requirements - a teacher sponsor and more than 20 students interested. (Thirty-seven showed up for the first meeting.)
Students who are involved must have parental permission to join, which is not required of other clubs.
The gay clubs also are active in several Pinellas high schools, where at least 500 students participated last year, said Sterling Ivey, a spokesman for the Pinellas school district.
In other business, board members:
Agreed to make an "official written request" of the Hillsborough County Commission to change the school impact fee ordinance and support the recommendation of a 16-member task force that said the fee should be raised from $196 per each new home to $4,000 to help pay for new schools.
Named Turkey Creek Middle School principal Mark West principal of Bloomingdale High School; Northwest Elementary assistant principal Darlene Carter the school's principal; and Lee Elementary assistant principal Denyse Riveiro principal of MacFarlane Elementary School.
Approved giving themselves a $1,572 raise for the coming year, bringing their salaries to $39,520, as recommended by the Florida School Boards Association.
Melanie Ave can be reached at 813 226-3400 or firstname.lastname@example.org
[Last modified December 14, 2005, 00:13:09]
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