Clubs too equal for S.C. principal

Students at schools in Lexington Richland 5, a district near Columbia, S.C., may have to get parental approval to join the chess club next year.

The Fellowship of Christian Athletes may not be able to use the school intercom to make announcements about meetings.

The Leo Club, sponsored by the Lion's Club as a way to get high school students interested in community volunteer work, may not exist at all.

That is, if the school board decides to amend or suspend the current policy on non-curricular clubs.

The current policy allowing non-curricular clubs such as the Fellowship of Christian Athletes or the Leo Club is the result of the Equal Access Law. Passed in 1984, the law stipulates that public schools must treat all non-curricular clubs equally.

And there's the rub. The law came about because of pressure from Christian conservatives who wanted greater access for religious clubs and study groups in public schools. Now those same supporters are crying foul as groups they oppose are protected by the law.

That's why the school board in Lexington Richland 5 is spending the summer debating what to do about the policy.

On May 21, Eddie Walker, the principal of Irmo High School in Lexington Richland 5, announced that he was resigning because students had asked to start a Gay/Straight Alliance club. The national organization is a support group that argues that “every gay and straight student has a right to a public education in an environment that is free from harassment, violence, namecalling and intimidation. All students deserve dignity and respect, regardless of their sex, sexual orientation, race, religion, disability, national or ethnic origin.”

The high school clubs focus on helping gay and lesbian students deal with the kind of harassment that, unfortunately, is not rare.

Clubs help gay students cope

Anyone who doubts that gay or lesbian students suffer verbal and emotional abuse didn't listen to the stories told by students in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools this spring to the school board to explain the need for a national Day of Silence.

Anyone who doubts that gay or lesbian students suffer verbal and emotional abuse hasn't been in the halls of any schools lately – not just in high schools or middle schools, but in elementary schools, too – where “gay” is used as the insult of choice.

Other high schools in the area have gay-straight clubs to help their students cope. The Diversity Club at Lakewood High School in Sumter has the blessing of the school's principal, Sherril Ray, who disagrees with Eddie Walker's decision to resign rather than support the Gay Straight Alliance club.

“They're learning to be tolerant of our differences and to learn about the person, not just what you perceive them to be,” she said.

In his resignation letter, Eddie Walker reveals the problems with his perception.

“Allowing the formation of this club on our campus conflicts with my professional beliefs and religious convictions. I feel the formation of a Gay/Straight Alliance Club at Irmo High School implies that students joining the club will have chosen to or will choose to engage in sexual activity with members of the same sex, opposite sex, or members of both sexes.”

Walker went on to say that breaking his commitment to staying as the principal of Irmo High until 2010 was also against his religious beliefs, but he was going to break it anyway. Instead of leaving in two years, he will stay until the end of the upcoming school year.

That's a mistake, I think. School administrators are charged with the well-being of each student, and I certainly understand if the gay and lesbian students in his charge are now skeptical of his good intentions.

I'm also skeptical about why he isn't leaving now. If the school board does decide to change the district policy to give principals more control over which clubs are allowed – one of the provisions they are considering – would he rescind his resignation?

Principal needs more education

No matter what the school board decides, here's what Eddie Walker should do as the principal of Irmo High next year.

Go to the meetings of the Gay/Straight Alliance club. See for yourself that the club is not, as you assumed, a dating service but a club for the students who need protection, not shunning.

Read the credible research on homosexuality – the American Psychiatric Association's statement, for starters, that homosexual orientation is most likely innate and not a choice.

Be careful not to use religion to justify your personal prejudices.

Follow the advice of the Diversity Club of Lakewood High School and learn to see people for who they really are and not just who you think they might be.