Texas School District Prohibits Formation of a Gay-Straight Alliance; Protest, Legal Action in the Works

UPDATE (3/3/11): On Thursday, March 3 at 12:40 EST/11:40 CST, Equality Texas Executive Director Dennis Coleman will be appearing LIVE on MSNBC to discuss this developing story.  Please tune-in and share this information with others. Four months after Bianca "Nikki" Peet initially approached principal James Crenshaw of Flour Bluff High School with the request to form a Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA), the 17-year-old student's proposal is still being denied despite Nikki honoring all of her principal's requests.  Nikki, the school and the Flour Bluff Independent School District (ISD) in Corpus Christi, TX are now at the center of a controversy that's capturing more and more headlines every day - leading up to a planned daylong protest in front of Flour Bluff High School on Friday, March 4 beginning at 9:00 a.m. CST. GSAs are student-run, extracurricular clubs that bring together lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) students, along with straight allies.  The purpose of a GSA is to provide support, and to promote understanding and acceptance.  With more than 4,000 GSAs providing support and educating students that it's okay to be who you are, they are common in public school districts throughout Texas and the nation.  With nearly 9 out of 10 LGBT students reporting that they experience harassment at school, a compelling argument can clearly be made that GSAs provide a resource our nation's schools need more, not less of. Unfortunately, that opinion is not shared by Dr. Julie Carbajal, the superintendent of the Flour Bluff ISD.  Carbajal has said repeatedly there is "no chance" the district will approve the proposed GSA.  According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the ACLU of Texas, the school district is breaking the law - specifically the Equal Access Act, passed by Congress in 1984. The Equal Access Act requires federally-funded schools to offer fair opportunities for students to form student-led extracurricular groups, regardless of their religious, political and philosophical leanings.  For years, Flour Bluff High School has allowed extracurricular clubs (including the Fellowship of Christian Athletes) to meet on campus with seemingly no issue - until now. Now, to try and get out of having to permit a GSA from meeting on campus, the Flour Bluff ISD has banned all extracurricular clubs, and has asked groups like the Fellowship of Christian Athletes to meet off-campus for the time being. In addition to violating the Equal Access Act, the ACLU asserts that banning all extracurricular clubs is an unlawful prior restraint on Nikki's speech.  Sound familiar?  The ACLU says this incident draws parallels to that of Constance McMillen, whose Mississippi school district vowed to cancel the prom after McMillen said she would bring her girlfriend. "I am shocked and disappointed that my school district would rather punish students by eliminating extracurricular clubs than allow the formation of a club whose entire purpose is to promote tolerance," said Flour Bluff High School student and GSA founder Nikki Peet. According to Carbajal, the Flour Bluff ISD is exempt from the 1984 law.  She says the district approved a policy in 2005 that does not allow student clubs to meet on campus if said clubs are not tied to curriculum. The school district is not exempt from the federal law, says Christine P. Sun, senior counsel with the national ACLU's Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender & AIDS Project. "Officials from Flour Bluff School District deny they are subject to federal law, but in fact, they are held to the same standard as other schools and must treat extracurricular groups equally, regardless of their students' religion, political affiliation or sexual orientation," said Sun in a press release on Tuesday, March 2. The ACLU sent a demand letter to the Flour Bluff ISD that gives the district until Wednesday, March 9 to confirm that a GSA will be allowed on campus.  If not, the organization says the school district will face legal action. As mentioned above, a daylong protest in front of Flour Bluff High School is planned for this Friday, March 4 beginning at 9:00 a.m. CST.  On hand to support Nikki will be her mentor and friend, Paul Rodriguez, president of the GSA at Texas A&M University - Corpus Christi. Nikki's efforts have also earned the support of Rev. Charles Brown, the pastor of St. Paul United Church of Christ (UCC) in Corpus Christi. Many others have signed on to show their support of Nikki.  As of this blog's posting, nearly 7,800 signatures have been collected for a petition calling on the Flour Bluff ISD to permit a GSA at Flour Bluff High School. GLAAD has provided media training  to Nikki and other leaders in Texas who are standing up in support of her.  At the same time, we urge the media to share Nikki's plight with audiences throughout Texas, a state where comprehensive anti-bullying legislation is a top priority for the current legislative session.  Here we have a young woman who's about to graduate, doing all that she can to make sure there's support in place for the students who will need it for years to come.  Her only opposition is her own schools' administrators, whose responsibility is to make sure that students have a safe place to learn.  In the case of Flour Bluff High School, rather than provide support, they are only making life more difficult for some of their students.  That's a really big problem and one that needs to be underscored by the media.