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Gay Straight Alliance discussion results in packed house at school board meeting

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A packed house turned out for last night's school board meeting in Sunnyside.

The newly formed Gay Straight Alliance (GSA) club at Sunnyside High School was the topic of discussion in a packed meeting at the Denny Blaine Building Tuesday night.

Four topics concerning the club were discussed, including ethics, opinion from the Sunnyside Ministerial Association, the legal aspects and the opinion of ESD 105.

Steven Winfree, chairman of the ethics committee, gave a brief talk before the school board. He said the committee met with the GSA students and their advisor, Dan Thomas, before the club was formed.

"Their mission statement is to have discussion and to avoid harassment," Winfree told the board.

He added there was nothing in the club's mission statement that conflicted with the school board's ethics statement. He said the committee's concerns were how the GSA students understand it.

"They (the students) all felt they should have supervision and guidelines on their discussions," he said. "The committee was clear it's not a case of supporting homosexuality or not, but to promote understanding and avoid harassment. We see no reason why they can't form a club."

Five members of the community and three school representatives make up the ethics committee. Winfree told the board many of the GSA students felt they have been victims of harassment and many others have witnessed it.

Board member Steve Carpenter asked Winfree if the students felt the school board's existing policies on bullying and harassment were ineffective. Winfree said he hadn't heard anything to that effect. He indicated the goal of the club was to offer more education, more understanding, which would bring about less intolerance in the future.

After Winfree, Pastor Mike Henry spoke to the board on behalf of the Sunnyside Ministerial Association. The association represents 14 churches in Sunnyside.

Henry read from a prepared statement by the association and said the association recognizes the school has a legal responsibility to allow students to form clubs or groups that encourage mutual dialogue and justice among students.

"We urge the administration to ensure that any clubs that exist or are formed are the result of student initiative," he read. "We offer this with the understanding that such clubs always operate without influence or agendas from non-student sources."

Henry went on to say the association rejects unjust discrimination and harassment of any person, including those with homosexual inclinations. The association also stressed that no clubs should advocate or approve sexual activity outside of marriage, or be involved in presentations in violation of laws or regulations governing sex education or privacy of individuals or families.

"We believe Biblical standards should provide the basic moral framework of all we do, and that they are universal enough to apply even in secular situations," he continued. "We are convinced that such Biblical direction will lead to decisions that are guided by love, justice and mutual respect."

After that, Sunnyside School District Superintendent Dr. Rick Cole read a letter from the school district's representation, attorney Gregory Stevens.

He said the issue of this club falls under the Equal Access Act passed in 1984 in response to a congressional belief that schools were improperly denying student religious clubs to meet on campus.

Stevens went on to say in his letter the law was enacted to go beyond this purpose and requires most schools to allow a broad range of student clubs equal rights.

He outlined in the letter that to comply with the Equal Access Act, the members of the GSA must be permitted access to the school campus in the same way that the District provides access to all clubs.

The only legal way in which a school district can deny allowing the GSA to form would be for the school district to deny access to all non-curriculum related student groups. Stevens went on to say in his letter that given the value school districts place on student groups, he was unaware of any school district which has taken this step.

Norm Walker, a coordinator for safe, civil, drug-free schools for ESD 105, told the board this is a conversation that divides people in a lot of ways and not everyone will agree on it.

"As public schools we represent everyone and we can't please everyone," he said. "We want our students to feel safe. I advocate for the safety of all kids in our schools."

He then read a letter from an anonymous high school student from the east coast. The letter explained how this student, who is gay, was constantly being harassed and how other students of color or with disabilities subjected to this kind of treatment were protected. In his letter, the high school writer stated that gay people are told nobody cares what they do as long as they keep it to themselves.

Jonas Linde, a Sunnyside High School junior, proceeded to express some concerns about how the club was formed.

Linde pointed out that students with religous beliefs are asked the same thing as the gay student wrote about in the letter.

"We are told it's OK to practice our religion but don't bring into our school," Linde said.

He told the board he was concerned there wasn't a discussion on the formation of the club. A member of the student body council, Linde said he's never seen a club approved without the council's approval.

Dr. Cole said that wasn't entirely accurate and that the club followed current guidelines set down by the school board. A club only has to be approved by the executive student council, which is made up of the ASB officers, Cole said.

Linde also told the board that a recent poster hung in the halls of Sunnyside High School stating, "I'm on the rainbow, follow me to the gold" gave the impression that members of the club were trying to recruit other students into the club's lifestyle.

Thomas said the club did not authorize this poster and it was unfair to lump it in with the mission of the club.

Linde said he realized the importance to fight discrimination and doesn't have a problem with the formation of the club, but would like to see a faith-based club started as well.

He told the board some teachers have been hesitant in allowing such a club, but others have been supportive.

His mother, Sandra Linde, said she was disappointed a parent committee wasn't asked to give input on the club. In the past she has served on two committees dealing with sexual harassment and policies on sexual education.

"I think it would have been a good idea for that committee to review the GSA club," she said.

She added she'd like the school board to know what information is being given to these students and who will be giving it. She said her biggest concern is the possibility of risky sexual behavior.

Board president Lorenzo Garza thanked everyone for their comments and said this was a community issue, not just a school district issue.

"I'm sure this is not the end of it," he said.

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