Plan allows parents to veto clubs

The compromise may end a fight over gay-straight alliances.

Published February 1, 2007

TAMPA - Parents could be responsible for telling schools which clubs are off-limits to their children in response to a culture war clash over gay-straight alliances in Hillsborough schools.

Letting parents "opt out" of some, or all, of the clubs at a school emerged Wednesday as a solution to a debate that has lasted a year and a half. It follows the School Board's rejection of a sweeping plan requiring students to get parental permission to join clubs.

Instead, parents would get veto power.

"If I want my kid to be in a club, I don't have to do anything," said School Board member Candy Olson, who participated in a task force meeting on the issue. "If I don't want my kid in a club, that's when I have to take action."

Olson and three other School Board members recently voted down a blanket parental permission requirement. They worried about unfairly penalizing students whose parents didn't return permission slips, and feared creating a paperwork nightmare for teachers.

The proposed opt-out form would let parents tell a school whether they wanted their children participating in any school clubs. Parents could list certain clubs as off-limits. They also could set a limit on how many clubs a child could join.

"The best we can do is make parents aware and give them the opportunity to opt out," said School Board member Doretha Edgecomb, who voted against the broad parental signoff.

Critics say the opt-out approach falls short. They said some students may not bring the form home to parents.

"It takes the rights out of the hands of the parents and puts the rights into the hands of the students," said Terry Kemple, who heads the conservative Community Issues Council and participated on the task force.

The school district also plans to get the information out in different ways, including a newsletter, the student handbook and online.

School Board member Jennifer Faliero is holding out hope for an "opt-in" policy, like the one she voted for in December.

She was on the losing side of the 4-2 vote over the plan pitched by Superintendent MaryEllen Elia. The opt-out recommendation now goes to Elia, who must seek School Board approval.

Clubs became a hot-button topic last school year after the creation of a gay-straight alliance at Newsome High School in east Hillsborough's conservative suburbs. Parental concerns led to a broader review of the policies regarding clubs in schools.

Michael Freincle, a gay-rights activist who graduated from Brandon High last year, has participated in the discussions. Initially, he didn't want to impose any parental permission form on students before they could join school clubs.

Now he supports an opt-out form as a good compromise. His reasons: "Parents will be involved. Paperwork won't be such an issue. Students rights won't be infringed upon."

Letitia Stein can be reached at lstein@sptimes.com or 813 226-3400.