June 14, 2011 | by Chris Johnson
Education Dept. affirms students’ right to form GSAs

The Obama administration has issued guidance to public schools throughout the country reaffirming the right of students to form gay-straight alliances to assist LGBT students.

In a “Dear Colleague” letter accompanying the guidance, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan explains the Obama administration backs gay-straight alliances, or GSAs, because they promote safe schools and foster affirming learning environments.

“Nationwide, students are forming these groups in part to combat bullying and harassment of LGBT students and to promote understanding and respect in the school community,” the letter states. “Although the efforts of these groups focus primarily on the needs of LGBT students, students who have LGBT family members and friends, and students who are perceived to be LGBT, messages of respect, tolerance, and inclusion benefit all our students.”

GSAs are student-run extracurricular clubs that bring together LGBT and straight students to support each other and promote acceptance. About 4,000 GSAs are registered with the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, an organization that focuses on LGBT student welfare.

The letter notes that despite the benefits of GSAs, schools often prohibit them, unlawfully exclude them from school grounds or deny them access to school resources. According to the ACLU, school districts in New Mexico and Texas in recent months tried to block GSAs from forming, but these districts were ultimately directed by their school boards to allow the GSAs to form.

According to the letter, the Equal Access Act of 1984 requires schools to treat GSAs equal to other groups regardless of the subject matter discussed at meetings, including sexual orientation and gender identity. The letter states that the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution also offers some protections.

“Officials need not endorse any particular student organization, but federal law requires that they afford all student groups the same opportunities to form, to convene on school grounds, and to have access to the same resources available to other student groups,” the letter states.

Should schools violate this guidance and prohibit a GSA from forming on campus, they could face lawsuits under the Equal Access Act. If a case worked its way through to a judgment — and the school lost — it could be required to pay attorneys’ fees.

Duncan announced he would issue the letter last week during remarks at a federal LGBT youth summit in D.C. The letter was made public only this week.

Laura Murphy, director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office, called the guidance a “welcome and much-needed reminder” to schools that students have the right to be free from exclusion.

“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,” Murphy said. “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.”

Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, said the letter from Duncan reinforces the importance of GSAs in public schools as a means to cultivate an affirming learning environment.

“This is a clarion call to teachers and school administrators that they must welcome and respect LGBT students and their allies and create an environment conducive to learning for all students regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity,” Solmonese said.

Hayley Gorenberg, deputy legal director for Lambda Legal, also praised the guidance as she recalled her organization’s previous wins in requiring schools to recognize GSAs through court order.

Lambda’s 2000 victory in Colín v. Orange Unified School District marked the first time a school was ordered under the Equal Access Act to allow a GSA to meet on campus.

“With today’s directive from the Department of Education, we hope that every administration in every school district across the country gets the message loud and clear: If you allow student clubs on campus, then you must allow gay-straight alliances equally,” Gorenberg said.

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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