By MICHAEL MARTIN GARRETT
UPDATE 3/21: The Chambersburg Area School Board informed the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania on Wednesday of its intent to “reconsider their vote on the [Gay Straight Alliance’s] application to be a club at their meeting on Wednesday, March 27,” Molly Tack-Hooper, staff attorney with the ACLU-PA, said.
The GSA will be granted all the privileges of an officially sanctioned school club, though Tack-Hooper said that this is a “temporary status pending their revote. We won’t know anything for sure until the evening of the 27.”
The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania and Equality Pennsylvania are threatening the school board of Chambersburg, a south central Pennsylvanian town, with legal action after the board voted 5-4 against allowing high school students to form a Gay-Straight Alliance on Feb 27.
The ACLU-PA and Equality PA sent a letter on March 12 to the Chambersburg Area School District superintendent and board president asking them to reverse their decision by March 15 or face a lawsuit in United States district court.
Witold Walczak, legal director of the ACLU-PA, said the school board asked for a month’s extension. The board now has until Wednesday, March 20 to respond, he said.
The school board’s Feb 27 decision came after several delays, including tabling the issue and questioning the club’s bylaws, which Equality Pennsylvania Executive Director Ted Martin called “traditional delaying tactics.”
“[The ACLU-PA and Equality PA] decided to give the ultimatum to the school board because the decision they made was wrong,” Martin said. “It was time for them to realize that what they were doing was violating the law.”
Walczak said the board’s decision was a violation of the Equal Access Act, a federal law that prevents discrimination against noncircular clubs in federally funded secondary schools.
“If the school board allows any noncircular clubs, then they have to allow the Gay-Straight Alliance,” Walczak said. The Chambersburg high school currently has a Bible Club and a Ping Pong Club, among others, he said.
“Not only is this the right thing to do from a policy perspective – to treat all students fairly… but they also have a legal obligation to do so,” Walczak said.
School board member Carl Barton said he voted against allowing the GSA because he “thought we needed to do some more research and consensus building.” Barton said that he was also concerned about the possible liability of students receiving “counseling” from non-licensed individuals at club meetings.
“You can’t do counseling, per se, because we then might have a liability,” Barton sad. “Legally, if one kid’s sitting down with another and talking to him about critical things – like depression – it can become quite serious.”
Barton said he also was trying to keep the GSA from “becoming the major issues for the school board election.”
The other members of the school board and superintendent Joseph Padasak could not be reached for comment. Assistant superintendent Eric Michael declined to comment, saying it would be inappropriate to discuss the actions of the board in light of the threat of legal action.
Former Chambersburg Area Senior High School student Thomas McCalmont started a petition on Change.org for the school board to reverse its decision two days after the board’s decision. As of March 16, the petition had 6,057 signatures.
McCalmont, who tried unsuccessfully to start a GSA each year he attended CASHS, said he felt compelled to act because of his experiences with bullying as a gay youth at CASHS.
“I had gone through every year being verbally bullied two to three times a day… and I knew other kids were going through the same thing,” McCalmont said.
One incident in his senior year led to McCalmont no longer being able to use the locker room before and after gym class because of the harassment he faced, McCalmont said.
“What I was trying to do [with the petition] was just to… put a little pressure on the school board to show there’s a lot of support for this club, both in and outside of the community,” McCalmont said.
Barton said he’s unsure how much of a factor McCalmont’s petition is on his position on the GSA because “there’s not a great indication of any great number of local people [who signed it].”
McCalmont said approximately 300 of the signatures are from people in Chambersburg, while almost 300 more are from the surrounding school districts. Almost 5,000 of the signatures are from Pennsylvania gay and lesbian allies, he said.