The Department of Education issued on June 14 a “dear colleague” letter to school districts around the country reinforcing students’ legal right under the federal Equal Access Act to form gay-straight alliances. Under the Equal Access Act, schools are required to treat extracurricular clubs equally. Increasingly, school districts across the country have been refusing to allow students to form GSAs.
In recent months, the American Civil Liberties Union has contacted school districts in New Mexico, Texas and Utah on behalf of students attempting to form GSAs in their schools and had originally met with resistance from school officials. Both districts were ultimately directed by their school boards to allow the GSAs to form. Federal courts have repeatedly ruled in favor of GSAs where schools tried to block their formation, upholding students’ right to form the groups in states like Utah, California, Indiana, Kentucky, Georgia and Florida.
GSAs are student-run extracurricular clubs that bring together lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) and straight students to support each other and promote acceptance and are common in public school districts throughout the nation. Their goal is to provide a safe, supportive environment for LGBT students to educate the school community about homophobia, gender identity and sexual-orientation issues.
“Today’s guidance from the Department of Education is a welcome and much-needed reminder to our nation’s school districts that all students have the right to be free from exclusion. Anti-gay discrimination, including harassment, hurts all students. Those attempting to create a safe haven where all students – LGBT and otherwise – can come together to discuss acceptance and provide each other with mutual support should not be stymied by their schools,” said Laura W. Murphy, director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office. “Gay-straight alliances can play a crucial role in improving students’ lives. Just as with other extra-curricular groups and clubs, students have a federal legal right to form GSAs. Our public schools should be promoting fairness and acceptance, not discrimination.”
Human Rights Campaign President Joe Solmonese added, “The message is: schools must support LGBT students. They must allow LGBT students and allies to create support networks because, like all students, LGBT students have value. That message – spoken or unspoken – is a life-saver.”