Head off squabbles over school clubs with proper plans

Sunday, November 10, 1996

When a group of high school students started a “gay-straight alliance,” our school board responded by canceling all extracurricular clubs. Many students and parents are angry about this. Is there a way for schools to deal with controversies about clubs without shutting down extracurricular activities for all of the students? — Martha Ball, Salt Lake City, Utah

The best answer is to act before a controversy erupts. A clear policy on student clubs that is widely understood and supported in the community will help prevent a crisis.

The policy must be based on the federal Equal Access Act, passed by Congress in 1984. Supporters of this Act wanted to make sure that students are permitted to form religious clubs in public secondary schools in the same way that they are allowed to form other extracurricular groups.

This means that if schools allow one extracurricular club then they must allow others, including religious and political clubs. The school must treat all such clubs equally.

The first decision a school district needs to make is whether or not to allow any extracurricular student clubs. Under the Equal Access Act, public secondary schools may decide to allow only student clubs that are directly related to the curriculum, such as history, math, or science clubs. Or secondary schools may create what the Act calls a “limited open forum” by also allowing student clubs not related to the curriculum, such as chess, service, religious or political clubs.

If extracurricular clubs are allowed, there are important provisions in the Act that will help communities understand how “equal access” works. For example, religious and political clubs must be voluntary and student-initiated. People from outside the school cannot lead or even regularly attend club meetings.

The school should work with parents and others in the community to develop additional guidelines for student clubs. It would be wise to require that every club submit a statement of purpose and bylaws. Schools may and should prohibit any club activities that are illegal or that would cause substantial disruption. For example, schools do not have to allow clubs that promote violence or racism.

At the same time, however, schools may not ban a club simply because school officials, parents, or other students don't like the content of the speech or the ideas expressed by the students wishing to meet.

One way to make sure that parents are fully involved is to require parental permission for student participation in all extracurricular activities, including student clubs. By doing this, the school ensures that parents are aware of various clubs at the school before they read about them in the newspaper. This policy will also help to eliminate many frivolous or extreme requests for clubs by students.

In the case of a “gay-straight alliance” or any other political or religious club, if it meets all of the requirements under the school's policy, then it may convene during non-instructional time on the same basis as other extracurricular clubs.

In my view, it is unfortunate when a school district shuts down the forum because a group of students has proposed a potentially controversial club. Allowing students to form a variety of clubs teaches First Amendment principles of free speech and religious liberty and gives students an opportunity to practice civic responsibility.

Many religious parents feel that this exercise is worth the risk because it gives their students the opportunity to form Bible and other religious clubs in the public school.

“Equal access” does not have to be a source of conflict. The key is for school districts to involve their communities in adopting a strong and clear policy before conflict erupts.

The good news is that, in the vast majority of school districts where it is being tried, the equal-access approach is working well.