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Learning the hard way

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Palmer High School students Haley Crump and Brett - Schager got in big trouble when, using sidewalk chalk on - the public sidewalk outside the school, they advertised a - Gay-Straight Alliance student club meeting. - 2005 BRUCE ELLIOTT
  • 2005 Bruce Elliott
  • Palmer High School students Haley Crump and Brett Schager got in big trouble when, using sidewalk chalk on the public sidewalk outside the school, they advertised a Gay-Straight Alliance student club meeting.

This school year has provided powerful educational opportunities for Haley Crump, Brett Schager and the more than 30 current members of the Palmer High School Gay-Straight Alliance.

They've learned how to organize. They've learned how to fight for justice, and the importance of standing up for their rights. They've learned just how petty and hostile their school leaders can be.

It's too bad these lessons came at the expense of at least five other clubs at Palmer -- and an unknown number of now-defunct student groups at other D-11 high schools -- that were victimized by the districts refusal to recognize a club designed to promote tolerance and respect.

And it's too bad for taxpayers that this proved to be one whopper of an expensive lesson.

Last week, as its final official action, the outgoing school board settled a two-year-old lawsuit, agreeing to recognize the Gay-Straight Alliance as a full-fledged student club at Palmer. To say the district previously was aggressive in its efforts to reduce the GSA, as well as other student groups, to second-class stature is putting it mildly.

During the battle, the district completely overhauled its policy on student clubs, creating a system in which only those with direct ties to the school curriculum would be "officially" recognized. Eleven others, including the GSA, the Book Club, the Film Club, the Unified Sports Team, the Dance/Drill Team and Interact, a volunteer community service organization, were allowed to meet, but were denied access to the public address system to announce meeting times and places. They were denied access to school equipment and resources. They were denied recognition in the school yearbook.

How severely did this maneuver cripple these clubs? Well, of the six listed above, only the Gay-Straight Alliance has survived. The others since have disbanded, according to Palmer principal Tom Kelly.

Now, just like that, all student clubs have been restored to full status. And right about now, you may be wondering: Just what were D-11 administrators thinking by wreaking such havoc? Well, they werent thinking, they were reacting. Reacting to a feared backlash by wingnuts who might get worked into a frenzy over the fact that the largest school district in the state's second-largest city has a club where gay and straight students gather to dissect and debate one of the most talked-about issues of the day.

As of press time, D-11 was unable to provide a total cost, much less a breakdown, of how much it spent trying to defend itself before throwing in the towel. However, as of March 31 -- eight months ago -- the district reported it had spent $250,000 on legal fees alone on the lawsuit. As part of the settlement, D-11 has agreed to pay another $90,000 in legal fees to the American Civil Liberties Union, which took the case on behalf of the students.

In its press release announcing the settlement, D-11 mentioned neither the money spent nor the other student clubs sucker-punched out of existence by their parochial thinking. Instead, newly appointed Superintendent Sharon Thomas said this in a press release: "We care about all our students and want to make District 11 a nurturing and supportive environment which promotes educational achievement for all students."

That's a far cry from just a couple of weeks ago, before the lawsuit was settled, when administrators and staff at Palmer demonstrated just how "nurturing and supportive" they felt toward members of the Gay-Straight Alliance.

Given the difficulties they faced in advertising their club, GSA co-vice chairs Crump and Schager, with other members of the club, brainstormed an idea: They would write where and when they were meeting, in chalk, on the public sidewalks around and nearby the school.

Administrators responded by yanking Schager out of that afternoon's GSA meeting and ordering him to the vice principal's office. In solidarity, Crump followed, as did a third member of the club. Facing a phalanx of angry administrators, staff and a security guard, the three were interrogated and verbally reprimanded.

They were told the sidewalk chalk was a hazard and a potential liability; people might slip on it. They were told that non-students might read the advertisement and try to come to the club meeting, creating a safety risk. They were reminded that the district was in the middle of a lawsuit, and therefore, the sidewalk-chalk advertising was inappropriate. They were threatened, Crump says, with being charged with vandalism for writing in chalk on the public sidewalks. They were ordered outside to scrub off the chalk.

They were, Crump reports, provided with a 10-gallon bucket of water and two brooms. Unable to lift it, Crump says she asked for a wagon to get the bucket outside. "The security guard said he wasn't going to make it any easier for us," she says. "It was intimidating."

The kids dragged out the bucket and swept the sidewalks clean. And yes, they were mad about it. Schager cites the district's official Student Code of Conduct and Discipline Handbook, in which the Board of Education claims it will not tolerate bullying of any kind, including "any word, look, sign or act, or pattern of such behavior, that inflicts or threatens to inflict physical or emotional injury or discomfort."

Finally this week, the two teacher sponsors of the GSA were placed on administrative leave for undisclosed reasons. History teacher Fran Lindau confirmed that she and Anton Schulzki, who until Wednesday was the chair of the social studies department, have been placed on paid leave, though she declined to comment pending the outcome.

Indeed, members of the Gay-Straight Alliance have gotten an education this year. What District 11 administrators have learned remains to be seen.

-- degette@csindy.com

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