Kennewick should re-visit decision on school clubs

The Kennewick School Board made a huge mistake when it decided to restrict all high school clubs in order to limit gay-straight alliances on campus.

According to federal law, all high school clubs must be treated equally. But instead of allowing GSAs the same privileges as other clubs that have been around for years, the school board went the other way and decided to reduce privileges for all.

It appears the thought of encouraging GSAs on campus is so abhorrent, it's better to limit all clubs than give GSA members access to public address systems, yearbooks and school newspapers.

What an awful message. The kids who want GSAs to help protect students from bullying and harassment in the high schools are now essentially being picked on by the school board.

School starts up again in Kennewick on Tuesday. If there is any way to address this issue before school really gets going, the school board should do it. Otherwise, students are going to find their favorite clubs essentially dysfunctional.

For many students, a highlight of their high school years is their involvement in a club where they can meet other students with similar interests. School officials often encourage students to find some activity that helps them make friends and connect better to school, knowing that in many cases it's this connection that helps keep them engaged in the classroom.

But students this year will find it harder to figure out how they fit in, thanks to this change in policy by the school board.

For about a year, the Kennewick School Board had been grappling with how to comply with federal law after gay and lesbian students wanted to start GSAs in the high schools. These clubs can be found in other schools around the country -- including across the river in Pasco -- and seek to provide a safe community within the school for homosexual students and decrease the instances of bullying and harassment they might face.

The problem was the district had been treating clubs differently and allowing different levels of access to school facilities, which went against federal law.

Some clubs, like Key Club, a service organization, could use the bulletin board and the public-address system in school. 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, and the GSAs had none of these privileges. That was a problem. The Equal Access Act provides that school districts may distinguish between curricular and noncurricular clubs, but that all must be treated the same.

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

High school principals and district officials worked hard to create a new policy that allowed all noncurricular clubs equal access to speaker systems, bulletin boards and yearbooks.

The Kennewick School Board approved the first draft in July and students attending applauded the decision.

But several weeks later, the board held its final vote. This time there were no students in the audience and the one school board member who had been the strongest advocate for GSAs in the high schools was gone.

Wendy London had resigned to take a new job in Seattle. With nobody there to make a fuss, Kennewick School Board member Lynn Fielding added a change to the policy. He asked it be approved but with an amendment to allow noncurricular clubs access only to school bulletin boards -- no yearbooks, no student newspapers and no public-address systems.

The rest of the school board went along.

To have a new policy changed at the last minute is frustrating when so many school officials worked hard to find a compromise that seemed acceptable to most staff and students.

Now it looks like not only GSAs will be limited, but so will other traditional clubs that have been in the schools for years. Key Club, for example, is an off-shoot of Kiwanis International and raises money for charity and provides volunteers to serve the community. It will no longer have access to ASB accounts, which will make fundraising much harder.

Also, teachers won't be able to advise students any more, as the new policy only provides for liaisons who simply monitor that students don't break school rules. They can no longer coordinate the students' activities.

So, in the desire to restrict one club, all are now restricted. Surely that wasn't the intent school officials wanted who worked on the new policy.

School board members should revisit this issue as soon as possible. If they don't, it should be remembered Fielding has decided not to run for re-election. When the new school board takes over in January, we recommend it put reviewing this policy as its first order of business.

At least that way school clubs have a chance to be resuscitated.