The Chambersburg School Board came under public scrutiny for their decision to reject the proposal for a new club at the senior high school. On Wednesday, February 27th, , the school board voted 5-4 against the formation of a Gay-Straight Alliance club. Chambersburg Area Senior High School (CASHS) principal Buddy Chapel was quoted in the Public Opinion as saying it that “‘it was business as usual'” at the high school today with no reports of student complaints about the school board’s decision; however, it seems that public outrage from the community and surrounding areas fueled a burning fire for change. One member from the community was so outraged by the vote that he started an online petition, Chambersburg Area School District: Allow a Gay-Straight Alliance to form at CASHS, through change.org to encourage the school board to reconsider their vote and to rise community support for the club. Thomas McCalmont from Roxbury, PA said that when he was a student at CASHS he tried unsuccessfully for three years to get a GSA club formed at the senior high school. McClamont writes that he believes that a GSA club is critical for students who struggle with their sexual identity at school and that the club would provide a much needed support system. He states, “It’s important for students to have support systems they might otherwise lack. Bullying has been an issue at the school even before I went there. It lead to me being called “fag” or “faggot” or some variation of that every day. One year I was unable to dress in the boys locker room because it was a “solution” for the intense bullying I endured one day after gym class. The bullying escalated to the point of contributing to a suicide attempt my senior year. This club is crucial for the students.” By 11:00pm on Thursday, February 28th, 166 supporters signed the petition.that includes a note to the school board members, Stanley Helman, Fred Rice, Joe Tosten, Norman Blowers and Carl Barton, begging them to reconsider their vote.
Back in January, the board first took a look at the proposal to form the club at the senior high school and delayed voting on the issue while they considered the formation of the club. The school board cited their reason for the denial being based on a technicality stipulating that school district policy requires that administration appoint club advisers. The GSA club proposal was based on the national GSA organization’s constitution which would have had the club’s members select their adviser. The school board stated that district policy mandates that they approve the faculty adviser assigned by the school which means that the club members could have little to no input about the adult adviser of their club. Matthew Busillo, one of the mentors selected to be an adviser for the club, stated that it is important that teens who are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender have mentors that are sensitive and supportive of them which is in line with what the national Gay-Straight Alliance recommends for adults working with youth. Two school board members also based their vote on how the issue of bullying relates to the proposed GSA club. After being educated about how teens struggling with their sexual orientation are more likely to be at risk for being bullied than heterosexual youth, at least two board members also based their vote against the GSA club because of bullying. While Blowers said that the GSA club was not focused on bullying, Barton said there is insufficient evidence to show that there is a widespread bullying problem at the CASHS in regards to sexual orientation being the root of the problem. Mental Health America reports that gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender teens deal with direct harassment, threats and violence about 26 times each day or once every 14 minutes and that 31% of gay youth were harassed or threatened in the past year. In order to provide a safe and respectful learning environment for all students, advocates for the GSA club at CASHS say that being able to select their own adviser was integral for them to be able to select an adult mentor that would provide support and understanding.
The school board’s decision to not allow the GSA club may very well leave the Chambersburg School District open to a lawsuit. Federal law mandates that schools must allow equal access under law to all clubs and organizations. The Equal Access Act of 1984 requires that a public secondary school who receives Federal financial assistance do not deny equal access, fair opportunity or discriminate against students who want to conduct a meeting. While non-school persons may not direct, conduct, control, or regularly attend activities of student groups, it also states that fair opportunity criteria requires that there is no sponsorship of the meeting by the school. Interestingly enough, the law was created in 1984 to allow for religious clubs to have the right to organize and hold meetings at the public schools without having restrictions against religious freedom. Looking over CASHS website, the senior high school has two religious based clubs: Bible Club and Fellowship of Christian Athletes. One report mentioned that a board member denied the GSA club because CASHS has a multicultural club at the school which should be sufficient to meet the needs that a Gay-Straight Alliance club would have provided. Considering that the description of the multicultural club includes visits to museums such as the black wax museum and the celebration of all diverse holidays, it is an extreme reach to reason that this club would be similar to the type of subject matter discussed in the GSA club. It seems that the public just is not buying that there can be faith-based clubs, music clubs, art clubs, even a skate-boarding club, but no support club for gays and straights to meet in an alliance against discrimination and hatred. Furthermore, the school board was informed that it is against Federal law to deny students equal access to form clubs and organizations as it is a violation of their civil rights. It was also reported in the Public Opinion that an attorney Pennsylvania from the American Civil Liberties Union was looking to talk to community members who spoke out at Wednesday’s meeting in support of the GSA club, so it may only be a matter of time before the Chambersburg School Board is called out on the carpet for their vote.