IRMO, S.C. — A South Carolina school district voted this week to allow students to form a gay-friendly club, fearing banning such groups could prompt a lawsuit.
The Lexington-Richland School District 5 school board had considered a ban on clubs that don’t relate to academics or sports, which would have shut down a proposed Gay-Straight Alliance. But under the policy approved June 23 — which allows all student clubs — parents will have the option of not letting their minor children participate in any school club. Another provision prohibits student clubs from discussing sexually explicit topics, in keeping with the district’s abstinence-based curriculum.
The ban was considered after Irmo High School Principal Eddie Walker announced he would step down at the end of the next school year because the Gay-Straight Alliance conflicts with his beliefs and religious convictions. In his resignation letter, Walker said a Gay-Straight Alliance conflicts with his professional beliefs because no other school club is based on sexual orientation.
At the June 23 meeting, Walker supported allowing all clubs, encouraging the community to move past the issue and look forward to the next school year.
“We’ve got to heal and move on from this,” Walker said. “I think that’s a win-win provision.”
The board had been tasked with picking among three options: eliminate all noncurricular clubs; allow both curricular and noncurricular clubs; or deny school sponsorship or funding to non-curricular clubs.
Proponents told board members the club would provide a support network for gay students and their straight friends, as well as a forum for all students to discuss issues faced by the gay community.
“I was left humiliated and frightened with no one to talk to,” John Dawkins told board members June 23 before the vote. Dawkins dropped out of a Lexington County school after other students repeatedly bullied him because he was gay.
“The role of a GSA is not only to offer a safe space ... but also a forum where points of view and differences of opinion may be discussed.”
Several parents of district students spoke out against the formation of the club, some also expressing support for a policy requiring students to obtain parental permission to be a member of any school club.
“I’m concerned that parents are not involved enough,” said David Taylor, whose sons attend schools in the district and who presented a petition signed by district parents in support of Walker. “I feel that this club’s existence, if allowed, will just compound the negatives further.”
Jeff Knowles, parent of a recent Irmo graduate, said he also was against the club but could support it with a permission slip.
“I believe this club promotes an alternative lifestyle that is high-risk and that parents are in the best position to provide the support needed if a child is struggling with his sexuality,” he told the board.
David Collier, a Columbia attorney who has been following the issue, urged board members to consider the legal challenges faced by other boards that have tried to squelch the clubs.
Groups like Lambda Legal and the American Civil Liberties Union “are literally waiting in the wings for the district to violate the law,” Collier said. “I would urge the board to maintain the status quo.”
Several school districts have been sued over potential violations of the federal Equal Access Act, which requires that schools treat all nonacademic clubs the same.
In 1998, a federal judge ruled that a Salt Lake City school board violated the Equal Access Act after it voted to ban all noncurricular clubs to stop a gay group from forming but then allowed some noncurricular clubs to meet anyway.
Two years later, a federal judge ordered an Orange County, Calif., school district to allow a Gay-Straight Alliance to meet while a similar lawsuit was pending. And in 2006, a federal judge ruled that a White County, Ga., school district was wrong to try to eliminate noncurricular clubs but still allow the student council and a prom planning committee to meet. The court ordered the district to change the policy.