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Today is Tuesday, November 27, 2007


Gay/Straight Alliance - A Debate Over Access

Gay-straight group wants to meet at Boyd school; Council denied request, will reconsider tonight

[ANNONSBURG, Ky.] -- An effort by a Boyd County High School gay-rights group to meet on campus has students, parents and residents at odds in the rural northeastern Kentucky community.

Twice this year, the school's teacher-parent council unanimously rejected the request by the GayStraight Alliance to meet at school,
decisions that drew the American Civil Liberties Union's attention.

After being contacted by student supporters of the group, the ACLU sent the council a letter last month saying the alliance, under the federal Equal Access Act, must be allowed to use school facilities if other noncurricular groups have access.

The six-member council -- three teachers, two parents and principal Jerry Johnson -- will reconsider the request today at a 6 p.m. meeting at the school.

The ACLU has raised similar complaints about schools in Indiana, California and Utah, said Chris Hampton, an ACLU public education
associate in New York City.

Supporters of the Boyd County group say intolerance toward gays is akin to racism. ''It's become mostly uncool to be a racist, so now we're trying to make it mostly uncool to be a homophobe,'' said Shane Dyer, 15, a sophomore from Ashland.

But critics say the group would advocate homosexuality and shouldn't be allowed to spread its views at school.

The Rev. Tim York, pastor of Heritage Temple Free Will Baptist Church and president of the Boyd County Ministerial Association, said a teenbased organization focused on homosexuality and sexual orientation would provide ''an introduction to things that I don't feel are a part of our community's code, our community's lifestyle.''

Johnson said the dispute is a tough one for students and teachers.

''The belief systems guiding each side don't match up. We have two groups that have core beliefs and are working their way through the messy business of participatory democracy,'' he said.

Few groups in state

If approved by the council, the alliance -- which met a few times this spring at an Ashland church 12 miles from town but isn't holding regular meetings now -- would be among the few gay-straight alliances in Kentucky, and perhaps the only one in a school outside of Louisville.

School councils, created under the 1990 Kentucky Education Reform Act, exist in all but a handful of schools. The councils are charged, among other things, with hiring the principal, choosing textbooks and other teaching materials, and setting a variety of policies, including what extracurricular clubs can meet at school.

At Boyd County High, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes holds prayer sessions open to anyone three mornings a week in a classroom. The Human Rights Club -- which promotes respect for all people regardless of race, age, gender or sexual orientation -- and the Family, Career and Community Leaders of America -- which does community service projects on such issues as combating drunken driving -- also meet at the school.

Tyler McClelland, 17, a senior from Summit who wrote the application to form the alliance, said students and others in the community need to know ''there are people of diverse sexual orientations here. You can't assume everyone is straight.''

Fears of an agenda

But York said he believes the alliance would be used for ''recruitment more than standing for rights.''

''If someone has a social battle going on in their own mind, they could be introduced to (go in) a certain direction in their life when it might not be there,'' he said. ''You have to be very careful with the mind of a teenager.''

Sarah Bashadi, 17, a student from Ashland, said she expects trouble at the school if the alliance is approved.

''The people who don't want it very adamantly don't want it here,'' said Bashadi, who said she likely wouldn't join but thinks the group should be allowed to form. ''It'll take a lot to get it accepted by those people.''

The Web site of the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Educators Network lists more than 1,300 self-reported alliances in schools, led by California, Massachusetts and Connecticut with 289, 167 and 99, respectively.

The site lists four in Kentucky -- two each in Jefferson and Fayette counties. But officials at those schools -- duPont Manual and Fern Creek Traditional high schools in Jefferson County and Henry Clay and Lafayette high schools in Fayette County -- say they have no active chapters.

Manual's alliance has been inactive for two years because students who were active graduated and there was not enough interest to keep it going, said principal Beverly Keepers.

John Denison, communications director for the network, said eight states and the District of Columbia have laws banning discrimination or harassment based on sexual orientation. He said schools are listed on the network's Web site because organizers requested it, but he acknowledged the group is often not informed when alliances become

John Hudson, principal of Atherton High School in Jefferson County, which is not listed on the network's site, said an alliance has been meeting at his school for more than two years. After some initial
criticism the complaints died down.

Most of the resistance came from outside school, said Leslie ZellerJames, a senior who founded the Atherton alliance in November 1999.

Other Jefferson County schools might be allowing such groups to meet, said Jim Watkins, the district's director for athletics and activities, but he said he's not sure how many.

While the groups would be allowed to meet, Watkins said, like other noncurricular groups they're not officially sanctioned by the schools. Sanctioned groups that deal with the curriculum, such as a foreign language or math club, can meet during school hours, but other groups have to meet before or after school.

Both the Louisville and Lexington metro areas have community-based support groups for gay teens.

The Louisville Youth Group has been drawing youths from Jefferson, Oldham and Bullitt counties and Southern Indiana for 12 years, said director Natalie Reteneller.

The group holds youth-led meetings organized around a topic, such as telling parents about their sexuality, and focuses on self-esteem through issues such as suicide prevention, drugand alcohol-abuse prevention and safe sex.

''Isolation is incredible with this group of young people,'' Reteneller said. ''Almost everyone who comes through the doors thinks
there is no one else like them.''

But rural areas don't have such groups.

At 990-student Boyd County High, a student first proposed a gay-straight alliance last spring, and teacher Kaye King agreed to be the adviser. But the school council rejected it, saying the application came too close to the end of the school year.

That student graduated in May. But cClelland applied this fall, saying more than 30 students -- some gay and some interested in
understanding gay issues -- pledged to be members. Again, the council refused to recognize the group.

Council had concerns

Kathy Felty, a social studies teacher on the school's council, said members thought the Human Rights Club could include sexual-
orientation discussions in place of a gay-straight group.

Felty also said many teachers were concerned the presence of the group would be disruptive because homosexuality is such a polarizing issue.

Rich Mahar, a parent member of the council, said the dispute forced the council to re-examine the school's policy on clubs. Last year, Boyd County High clubs met one day a month during school hours, but that has been scrapped this fall because of the debate over the alliance and because school officials don't want clubs to distract from classes.

In his letter to the council, James D. Esseks, litigation director of the ACLU's Lesbian and Gay Rights Project, said schools ''may not pick and choose among noncurricular clubs based on what they think
students should or should not discuss.''

Student backers of the group said meetings at the school would provide a safe forum for sexual-orientation discussions.

''It's not only an awareness and education issue. It's a safety and health issue,'' said Dyer, the sophomore. ''We want safety for all our students -- straight, gay, black, white. When you have people at
school who are afraid every day, something needs to be done.''

King, the alliance's adviser, said she knows of no incidents of physical harassment of gays since the school year started.

But McClelland said Boyd County High students who are gay or perceived as gay are verbally harassed or ridiculed. He said one
student called him a queer this fall. A gay-straight alliance would help reduce such actions by promoting a discussion about
homosexuality at the school, he said.

Student opposition

Lena Reese, 15, a sophomore from Catlettsburg, said student opposition to the alliance was so vocal last spring that many
potential supporters were intimidated. She said student opposition is more muted this fall.

Kyle Slone, the senior class president and a member of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, said it's fine if some students want to promote tolerance, ''but I don't know if this is the place to do it.''

''A lot of students don't want to hear about'' the alliance, said Slone, 17, of Catlettsburg. ''A lot of students think it's wrong.''

''It's none of our business what people do outside of school,'' said Rachel Glockner, 17, a senior from Cannonsburg. ''I think they should keep it to themselves.''

Some local residents also are opposed. Glen Shavers, 58, of Rush, a Boyd County High graduate who's now a steelworker, said the
alliance ''is against all my religion and morals.''

''There's a time and a place for all things and I don't think the school is the place for it,'' said Bessie Roberson, 76, of Ashland, who sent her two children to Boyd County High. ''I don't approve of gays. . . . The Bible's against it, and that's it.''

Felty, the teacher on the council, said in light of the ACLU's letter, council members are reviewing court decisions on the issue
before taking up the application again.

Mahar, the parent member of the council, said he would not object to allowing the alliance to meet as long as it's outside classroom hours.

Bill Capehart, the district's superintendent, said his review of case law suggests that unless a ''gross procedural safeguard'' is violated, the club should be approved.

King, the adviser, said if the council's vote goes against the alliance for a third time, students who have their parents'
permission plan to sue with the ACLU's backing.

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