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Inconsistencies cited in District 11 club policies

click to enlarge District 11 school board member Karen Teja
  • District 11 school board member Karen Teja

A group of Palmer High School students was right to sue the school over its refusal to recognize their student club, the Gay/Straight Alliance, a District 11 school board member says.

Board member Karen Teja said in an interview last week that the refusal seems inconsistent with the school district's approach to other student clubs.

"In my opinion, they have grounds for the suit," Teja said of the students. "We need to be consistent ... with what we sanction and what we don't."

Case is strong

The Colorado chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union sued Palmer in federal court on behalf of the students, on Dec 12. The students have tried since January to persuade Palmer to recognize their club, whose purpose is to "facilitate discussion between gay students, straight students, and those who are questioning their sexual identity, on such subjects as harassment, discrimination, and bias."

Officials at Palmer, as well as the central administrative office, however, have refused the request, saying that under district policy, only "curriculum-related" clubs can be recognized, and that the Gay/Straight Alliance doesn't meet that definition.

The lawsuit, on the other hand, notes that Palmer already recognizes clubs whose curricular relevance is unclear -- including a chess club, a Frisbee club and a mountain bike club. A federal statute, the Equal Access Act, requires schools to recognize all clubs on an equal basis.

"If a school permits even one noncurricular student club to use school facilities, then it must permit all noncurricular clubs," the lawsuit argues.

Teja said the case is strong for arguing that the Gay/Straight Alliance is as curriculum-related as some existing clubs.

"Perhaps this new group that wants to come in is aligned with our bullying policy, or our diversity curriculum," she said.

A small fortune

Palmer's principal, Karin Reynolds, would not discuss the issue. Nor would other school district officials.

"When something goes into litigation, our lawyers just more or less tell us, 'Keep your mouth shut,'" said district spokeswoman Elaine Naleski.

Besides Teja, school board members reached by the Independent also wouldn't talk, other than to say that the board has not yet formally discussed the matter. "I really don't have any information," said board president Sandy Shakes.

The students bringing the suit have also been advised by the ACLU not to speak about the case.

A local gay-rights activist, meanwhile, says he's puzzled that the school district seems willing to spend money fighting the issue in court.

"It's absolutely surprising to me," said Frank Whitworth, a former leader of the gay-rights group Ground Zero. "It will cost them a small fortune to pay legal fees."

Whitworth pointed out that an estimated 50 Colorado high schools already have Gay/Straight Alliance chapters. And five years ago, students forced the Cherry Creek School District in Denver to accept a Gay/Straight Alliance by filing a similar lawsuit.

Palmer High School, however, has a history of trying to shut discussion of gay and lesbian issues out of its "sanctioned" discourse in response to pressure from gay-rights opponents. In 1996, Colorado for Family Values chairman Will Perkins organized a vocal group of critics when the school's newspaper, the Lever, ran an article about problems gay teenagers face. Several district officials sided with Perkins, calling the article "inappropriate."

District officials also rejected a previous attempt to organize a Gay/Straight Alliance at the school in 1999.

"There's a perception that it's a very liberal school, but it's not," said Tasha Hill, director of Inside/Out Youth Services, a nonprofit group that offers support for gay and lesbian youths.

Gay and lesbian highschool students frequently face harassment and violence, and students have told Hill they feel no safer at Palmer than at other schools, she says. That's exactly why the Gay/Straight Alliance is needed, Hill argues.

"It's about an oppressed group finding a way to make school a better place for themselves."

-- Terje Langeland

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