Education

Tennessee School Board Responds To Residents’ Fear Of ‘Gay Political Agenda’ By Restricting Student Groups

CREDIT: YouTube

GSA supporters staged a rally on Monday.

Major resistance to a new Gay Straight Alliance at a Winchester, Tennessee high school is causing the school board to consider placing restrictions on all student organizations, such as requiring students to getting a parent’s permission to join. Both supporters and opponents of the GSA are protesting the changes at Franklin County High School, according to reporting from the progressive news site, The New Civil Rights Movement.

During the last school board meeting, only one board member voiced opposition to the restrictions and raised concerns that they were designed to target the GSA. In a work session earlier this month, school board members considered eliminating all extracurricular clubs.

Gay Straight Alliances are exactly what they sound like — student organizations that encourage LGBT students and straight, cisgender allies to improve school climates for LGBT people. But these student organizations often meet opposition from parents, administrators, faculty, and community members. A similar controversy occurred at Brandon High School in Brandon, Mississippi last year. After students tried to start a GSA, the school board made a policy requiring students to get parental permission to join any student organization. Lynn Weathersby, the then superintendent of the Rankin County School District reportedly asked counsel how to prevent the creation of “gay clubs” and was informed that requiring parental consent to join all clubs was the best way to do so.

It appears the same tactic, designed to get around the Equal Access Act — which was originally intended to allow Christian students to be able to participate in Bible study at school — is being used in the case of this Tennessee school board.

Two groups that have been labeled as anti-LGBT groups by the Southern Poverty Law Center, MassResistance and Liberty Counsel, got involved in the opposition to Franklin County High School’s new GSA. MassResistance claimed it was contacted by local parents and school board members (though a local journalist said it was the other way around and the group contacted the school board). Anti-LGBT residents decried what they called the GSA’s “radical gay political agenda” at a school board meeting last month.

On Tuesday, pro-GSA students and anti-GSA adult protesters gathered outside the high school, according to The New Civil Rights Movement. The anti-GSA protesters wore shirts that read hateful messages, such as, “Homosexuality Leads to Hell,” and carried signs reading, “DANGER: SIN KILLS: TURN OR BURN.”

Allowing students to participate in GSAs may seem like a small step toward making school climates better for LGBT people, but research shows GSAs are actually pretty powerful when it comes to mitigating depression, substance abuse, and suicide attempts. Regardless of whether they participate in the GSA, LGBT students who had a GSA in their school were less likely to experience depression and more likely to have higher self-esteem, according to the Family Acceptance Project’s findings. It’s worth noting, however, that the positive effects of GSAs could be canceled out in school environments with high LGBT student victimization.

There is a history of LGBT rights groups providing legal assistance to students when schools impose restrictions on GSAs. In 2009, Lambda Legal sued the Indian River Central School District after the principal refused to allow a student to start a GSA and did little to nothing to address harassment of an LGBT student. Days later, the district allowed the student to start a GSA. Last year, the ACLU sued North Putnam High School in Indiana after the school board voted to stop the group from forming despite the fact that other student groups didn’t have to pass a vote. After the lawsuit was filed, the school board reversed its decision.

Many school districts would rather settle and change their policies instead of go through a time-consuming and costly lawsuit. The one Franklin County School District school board member who objected to the restrictions, Adam Tucker — an attorney who represents school districts and local governments — said he disagreed that the language of the restrictions were legally acceptable, according to The New Civil Rights Movement.