Quote of the day
"We are shut up in schools and college recitation rooms for ten or fifteen years, and come out at last with a bellyful of words and do not know a thing. "
-Ralph Waldo Emerson
-Ralph Waldo Emerson
Thursday, March 6, 2008
Parent and student engage the wheels of justice to defend the GSA and the DoS
Submitted by one of our parents...
March 6, 2008
VIA EMAIL AND FACSIMILE (425-831-8040)
Snoqualmie Valley School District
Mr. G. Joel Aune, Superintendent
Mr. Randy Taylor, Principal
Mr. Rudy Edwards, Snoqualmie Valley School District Boardmember
Ms. Caroline Loudenback, Snoqualmie Valley School District Boardmember
Ms. Kathryn Lerner, Snoqualmie Valley School District Boardmember
Ms. Marci Busby, Snoqualmie Valley School District Boardmember
Ms. Kristy Sullivan, Snoqualmie Valley School District Boardmember
8001 Silva Ave S.E., P.O. Box 400
Snoqualmie, WA 98065
Dear Superintendent Aune, Principal Taylor, and Members of the School District Board of Directors,
I write at the request of Daniel Ferland, a Mount Si High School parent, and his daughter, Jacqueline Ferland, a Mount Si High senior who is President of the school’s Gay Straight Alliance, to express their significant concerns about recent efforts by outside groups to pressure members of the Mount Si Gay Straight Alliance (“GSA”) to refrain from exercising their rights to freedom of expression at the school. This letter aims to provide the School Board with information about its obligations to ensure safe and equal educational opportunities for all students and to invite any questions you may have on this matter.
Initially, I’d like to provide a brief introduction of my organization. Lambda Legal is the oldest and largest legal organization in the country dedicated to advancing the civil rights of lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, and transgender individuals (“LGBT people”) as well as those with HIV. Lambda Legal’s work on behalf of students in schools has included securing the first-ever federal court rulings that schools must protect gay students from violence and harassment; a first-of-its-kind federal court ruling and settlement recognizing the constitutional right of lesbian and gay youth to be “out” about their sexual orientation at school; and recognition that gay-straight alliances must be allowed to meet under the same rules as other student groups.1
Schools occupy an important public trust in our society, which both constitutional law and Washington law define to include the safeguarding of students’ full and equal participation in school regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.2 A school’s obligation to teach respect for the basic dignity of all students is a particularly critical element of this trust because of each school’s important role in training our nation’s future leaders, a role that the courts have long recognized depends on exposure to a robust exchange of ideas. We understand that Mount Si has come under increasing pressure to circumscribe this exchange of ideas ― particularly those relating to LGBT students ― through calls for a taskforce about the teaching of “controversial” subjects, and most recently a distressing “open letter” from an outside group warning GSA members that they should cancel their plans to participate in the nationally recognized Day of Silence or else face “more persecution of gay students” (emphasis in original) based on what they claimed would be a building “resentment” that would “spill out in ugly ways,” where “problems experienced will occur again.” Of great alarm, this letter referenced “unstable people [who] sometimes turn their frustration to extreme acts of violence,” including “[s]chool shootings.”
While schools across the nation implement policies on the teaching of controversial subjects in their role as responsible educators, schools may not adopt policies in which the indicia of controversy are discriminatory based on sexual orientation, gender identity or other personal traits placed off limits by anti-discrimination laws. Though some community members have expressed a view that discussion of LGBT people necessarily is controversial by definition, public entities such as schools may not give effect to such private biases by lending those views the imprimatur of school policies. See Palmore v. Sidoti, 466 U.S. 429, 433 (1984) (“Private biases may be outside the reach of the law, but the law cannot, directly or indirectly, give them effect.”) LGBT students and their supporters exist, and have a right to exist, at Mount Si. They are to be governed by, and protected by, the same rules as apply to all other students, including the rules defining what is “controversial.”
Mr. Ferland, his daughter Jacqueline, and other students in the GSA are particularly troubled by the “open letter” dated February 27, 2008 addressed directly to the GSA members by a group calling itself the Coalition to Defend Education (“CoDE”). The notion that an outside group of adults may make direct appeals to students to refrain from participating in school activities is deeply distressing for these students, many of whom feel targeted and intimidated by this effort. Moreover, the letter makes plain that CoDE misunderstands the nature and purpose of the Day of Silence, and shows why that and similar activities are essential for LGBT students and their supporters at Mount Si. These students selected the Day of Silence activity precisely because it is educational, calm and non-confrontational. It is a low-key way for them to help their fellow students understand that they exist within the school community, though many of them are invisible much of the time. By its very nature, this silent activity avoids confrontation. And, as the CoDE letter acknowledges, only a small percentage of the student body participates. Yet, even with limited participation, this educational exercise encourages the non-participants to recognize errors in their assumptions about others’ identities and/or attitudes about LGBT people.
Because members of the GSA now feel targeted and pressured not to engage in the educational activities of their school club, we call on each of you to make clear the school administration’s commitment to allowing students to participate in their club and other free speech activities, free from outside adult warnings of dire consequences or coercion.
The parent and student on whose behalf we write are deeply concerned that CoDE’s outside pressure, applied with the admitted goal of censoring and rendering invisible LGBT students and their supporters, is quickly and seriously eroding the environment for all students at the school. From our work in this area, we know how important it is for school officials to take prompt, proactive steps to ensure that all students are able to attend and participate in school free from intimidation, harassment and fear for their safety. Leadership from the School District Board of Directors and Mount Si High School administration on these issues is urgently needed. At the behest of Daniel Ferland and Jacqueline Ferland, we urge the administration to communicate clearly its support for all students regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, its expectation that all students will be treated with respect in the school environment, and its firm refusal to allow students to be pressured or dissuaded by outside parties from engaging in visible, educational activities within their school environment.
Tara L. Borelli
3325 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 1300
Los Angeles, CA 90010
1. See, e.g., Nabozny v. Podlesny, 92 F.3d 446 (7th Cir. 1996) (first judicial opinion in the nation’s history finding that public schools and their individual agents can be held accountable for not stopping antigay abuse; culminated in nearly $1 million settlement for student); Henkle v. Gregory, 150 F.Supp.2d 1067 (2001) (ruling resulting in settlement recognizing the constitutional right of gay and lesbian youth to be open and honest about their sexual orientation in schools and $451,000 payment to student); Colín v. Orange Unified School District, 83 F.Supp.2d 1135 (2000) (granting preliminary injunction against school district that prohibited gay-straight alliance from meeting and participating in same school privileges as other school clubs).
2. Indeed, Washington’s Legislature has recognized that eliminating discrimination based on these classifications is a matter of state concern, and forms the foundation of a free democratic state. (R.C.W. 49.60.010.)