All Walter Schlect and his friends wanted was to start a new student club to address prejudice on campus.
But the Associated Student Body at West Valley High School would not consider their application. Despite appeals, the ASB forwarded the application to the school principals. The principals stalled for a while, before demanding that the group apply directly to the school board.
Why all the fuss? Schlect wanted to form a Gay-Straight Alliance club. Students at many other schools in Washington had done the same, but administrators at his school in Yakima felt a GSA could be too controversial for their community.
“They were worried about creating a volatile situation, worried about safety. They thought people could target the GSA and that gay students would get teased more,” Schlect said. “We were ready to give up. We thought the school board would be a disaster.”
That’s when Schlect sought help from the ACLU. Staff Attorney Aaron Caplan sent the school principal a letter in April 2005, detailing the students’ legal rights to form a club and meet on campus. Shortly afterwards, school administrators approved Schlect’s application.
Fortunately, Schlect’s experience is not typical, as many schools realize the benefits of having a Gay-Straight Alliance on campus. But some administrators still have an overblown fear of these clubs, sometimes stemming from prejudice, other times from ignorance of the law. That’s why it’s important for students seeking to form a GSA club to learn about their rights and to seek help when they need it.
The law clearly protects students’ rights to form clubs on campus. The federal Equal Access Act says that secondary schools must give all noncurriculum-related student clubs – clubs that aren’t directly affiliated with a class – equal access to school facilities, regardless of the content of the speech in their meetings.
Federal courts have ruled that all such clubs must also be offered equal benefits, such as space on school bulletin boards, a yearbook picture, and access to school announcements. In addition, clubs have the right not to be subjected to a vote to be able to meet or access the campus.
Still, state laws give schools authority to set up procedures for creating student clubs. Clubs may also be either affiliated with an Associated Student Body, or independent of it. This may affect the governance of those clubs, funding sources, and how much involvement the school administration or school board may have in its activities.
It is advisable for students to check their student handbooks and study the procedures for starting a club, and for affiliating it with the ASB. Students may also need to write a constitution, or to find a faculty advisor or sponsor. By following these procedures carefully, students can avoid delays or bureaucratic stalling when attempting to form a student club.
It helps also to be diplomatic, even in the face of unfair treatment. “Don’t treat the administration condescendingly,” Schlect said. “Try to be as patient as you can. Try to see things their way. It’s like what they say about wild animals: They are more afraid of you than you are of them.”
If a school refuses to provide equal access and opportunity to a student club, the ACLU is available to provide legal assistance. In most cases, all it takes is a letter or a brief communication, as the ACLU did in 2003 at Puyallup High School and Federal Way High School, and in 1999 at Shelton High School.
Schlect, now a freshman at Washington State University, said the West Valley High School GSA has settled into being another small student club among many. “The GSA became pretty normal at the school. Everybody accepted it because it’s just there,” Schlect said.
For more information on how to start a GSA club, visit:
ACLU - https://www.aclu.org/issues/lgbt-rights/lgbt-youth
Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network - www.glsen.org
If a school is not allowing students to form a GSA club or is denying the club equal access or benefits, contact the ACLU of Washington at 206.624.2184.