Student clubs in Kennewick face restrictions

All student clubs, including those that provide community service, were restricted during an effort to give more access to gay-straight alliances in Kennewick schools.

After discussing how much access gay-straight alliances ought to have in Kennewick schools for nearly a year, the school board Wednesday unanimously approved a new policy. It created more limits for all noncurricular student clubs.

One teacher at the board meeting feared the new rule would make community service clubs such as the Key Club inoperative.

Since last fall, the school board had grappled with how to better provide for gay-straight alliances -- or GSAs -- in Kennewick schools. Such student clubs seek to provide safety from harassment or bullying at school to gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender youth.

The district had been in violation of federal law by granting different levels of access to school facilities to various student clubs.

Some, such as the Key Club or the chess club, could use the bulletin board and the public-address system in schools. The Key Club and a few others also had paid advisers and an account with the Associated Student Body for fundraising purposes.

Others, such as Youth on Fire, a religious organization, or the gay-straight alliances had none of these privileges.

And that distinction was against federal law. The Equal Access Act provides that districts may distinguish between curricular -- math or French clubs, for example -- and non-curricular -- chess or Pokmon clubs.

But within each group all must be treated the same.

Gay and lesbian students said at previous meetings that not being able to announce meetings at school made it nearly impossible to form a club.

District staff and high school principals had worked up a new policy, which was discussed last month. It was a compromise -- all noncurricular clubs would get equal access to speaker systems, bulletin boards and yearbooks, and service clubs would lose some privileges.

When the board tentatively approved a first draft of the policy last month, students and advocates applauded the decision.

But the board had yet to hold its final vote, which it did Wednesday. This time, the gay and lesbian students who had packed previous meetings were absent.

And former board member Wendy London, who had been a vocal advocate for GSAs, no longer had a say. She resigned last month.

Board member Lynn Fielding, who had argued against much of the new policy in the past, asked that the policy be approved with an amendment to allow noncurricular clubs access only to school bulletin boards, not yearbooks, student newspapers or public-address systems.

Having to come up with a working policy before the start of the school year, the board unanimously approved the policy with the amendment. Board member Kathy White had reservations.

Providing means of communication to the students clubs had been the whole point all along, London said.

"Essentially, that was the purpose of raising the issue," she said by phone after the meeting. "He effectively undid all the discussion we had. And he just did damage to the Key Club and others."

A Southridge High School teacher concurred.

The Key Club, a student offshoot of Kiwanis International, gives students "an avenue to learn to be civic-minded," said Phillip Dron, who has been the Key Club adviser at Southridge. "That avenue is now taken away."

Key Club members raise money for charity and volunteer in the community.

But now they no longer have access to ASB accounts, which will make fundraising much harder, Dron said.

The students' efforts will no longer be publicized in the student paper or the yearbook. This will mean fewer kids will sign up for the club, he said.

And teachers will no longer be paid to be advisers -- in fact, they can't advise the students anymore. The new policy only provides for liaisons, who monitor that students don't break school rules. But they can't direct students' efforts.

Dron said he wouldn't volunteer his time if he couldn't actively coordinate the students' work.

"This (policy) will make the Key Club dysfunctional," he said. "Kids lose a way to learn to be responsible."

Also Wednesday:

-- Controversial Kennewick City Council candidate Loren Nichols spoke during the public comment portion of the meeting. He asked that speakers that amplify teachers' lectures be turned off in all schools to protect children's hearing. Superintendent Dave Bond said the district didn't plan to shut off the entire system but would adjust individual classrooms upon student request.