- Kathy Conarro
- A proposed gay-straight alliance at Palmer High School sparked District 11 to revamp its entire policy on student clubs.
A sophomore at Palmer High School, Sean Jasperse-Sjolander decided earlier this spring that he'd like to join a couple of the school's many student clubs -- specifically, the Sci-Fi Club and the Strategy Club.
Students with interests similar to his -- such as computers and strategy games -- "get made fun of by other people," Jasperse-Sjolander said. "These clubs form communities that they can be part of, with people that are similar to them. It provides a safe haven."
Besides, he says, having participated in extracurricular activities might help him when applying for college scholarships.
But Jasperse-Sjolander was too late. As part of a "reclassification" of student clubs in Colorado Springs School District 11, which took place in February, the groups he wanted to join had lost their official school-sponsored status.
Without official status, student clubs can't use schools' bulletin boards or public-address systems to announce meetings, and they lose their faculty sponsors.
As a result, Jasperse-Sjolander says, the Palmer clubs he wanted to join -- along with several others -- pretty much ceased to exist.
Sort of railroaded'
Now, the district is moving to officially change its student-club policy in a way that would permanently deprive dozens of student clubs of their official recognition. The move appears to be directly sparked by a pending federal lawsuit against D-11 for refusing to recognize a student club focusing on gay and lesbian issues.
Members of a district-appointed citizens committee, which has studied the proposed new policy, say it's a major change that could significantly affect student morale by driving many clubs to extinction.
"It is a sweeping change," said committee member Jan Tanner.
Moreover, the district is going about the change without substantial public input, and without identifying any clear reason for it, members of the citizens committee assert. In fact, members say they've had to fight to make sure their findings are even going to be considered by the district.
"The committee members ... were sort of railroaded," said Charles Sjolander, who served on the task force and is Sean Jasperse-Sjolander's father.
At the forefront
The student-club issue came to the forefront last December, when the Colorado chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union sued D-11 over Palmer High School's refusal to officially recognize a new club called the Gay/Straight Alliance. The suit was filed on behalf of club organizers, who said they wanted a forum for discussing gay and lesbian issues at Palmer.
Officials at Palmer and D-11 defended the refusal by saying the club wasn't "curriculum-related." Federal law allows schools to deny recognition to non-curricular clubs.
However, if a school allows some non-curricular clubs, it cannot discriminate against other such clubs. As it turned out, Palmer had for years granted recognition to a host of non-curricular clubs, such as the Frisbee Club and the Mountain Biking Club.
Moreover, the district's official policy on recognizing student clubs made no distinction between clubs that were curriculum-related and those that weren't.
The district soon set about to correct those inconsistencies. First, in February, D-11 reclassified 29 student clubs at its five high schools, from the Fellowship of Christian Athletes at Wasson High to the Recycling Club at Mitchell High, as "non-curricular."
District staff then began drawing up a proposed new club policy that would explicitly distinguish between curricular and non-curricular clubs and grant official recognition only to the former.
Last month, the D-11 school board appointed a committee of community members to examine the proposed policy change.
Several members of that panel now say it's become clear that the district didn't really want their input.
At first, committee members were given the impression that they would report their findings directly to the school board. Then, they were told they would only give input to district staff, who would then make a presentation to the board.
The committee also asked the district to provide it with a list of reasons why the existing club policy needed to be changed, but received no response.
"We were never given that," committee member Tanner said.
Likewise, when committee members asked to see the report being drafted from their own meetings, they met initial resistance, Sjolander said. When they were finally allowed to see the report after several requests, they found that it de-emphasized their concerns about the policy change.
The report was written by one of the attorneys defending D-11 in the ACLU lawsuit, Stuart Lark, who had attended the committee meetings.
"It was obvious that the lawyer was trying to downplay everything," Sjolander said.
Committee members decided to hold an extra meeting and wrote their own, 16-page report. The report concludes that the proposed policy change would have a "significant impact" on student morale.
"Extracurricular clubs are facing extinction," the report states. "Since February, almost all non-curricular clubs at Palmer have disbanded. The inability to publicly announce meeting times and places is the most critical factor in their demise."
Students would lose out as a result, the report states, because participation in clubs provides a number of benefits -- from building character and self-confidence to generating school pride and a sense of belonging.
A D-11 spokeswoman, Elaine Naleski, said she couldn't comment on most aspects of the policy process because she wasn't directly involved. Asked why the club policy is being changed, she replied, "I guess you would have to talk to the people who were involved in making that change."
She then said that district staff members who were involved in the process wouldn't comment, due to the pending ACLU lawsuit.
Naleski also downplayed concerns that non-curricular student clubs would cease to exist without school sponsorship.
"There is so little difference between a club that is recognized and one that is not recognized that I don't really understand why that would happen," she said.
Asked why the district went ahead and reclassified clubs in February -- even though the proposed new club policy still hasn't been adopted -- Naleski replied, "I can't answer that."
At all costs
Committee members, meanwhile, say it's clear that the proposed policy change is being driven directly by the ACLU lawsuit.
"It all boils down to, everything was fine until Palmer students asked to have a GSA (Gay/Straight Alliance)," said committee member Greg Borom.
Said Sjolander, "We all know that it's the lawyers [for the district] who have been pushing" for the policy change.
Evidently, district officials would rather take away dozens of clubs than face the implications of the Gay/Straight Alliance lawsuit head on, Sjolander lamented.
"They're going at it with a sledgehammer," he said.
The school board was expected to discuss the proposed policy change at its Wednesday meeting this week, but no action on it was expected.