Guest column offers voice of reason in GSA debate

This ran in today’s op/ed section of The State. Thanks to Bennie Colclough, Co-chair of the SC Progressive Network, and C. Ray Drew, executive director of SC Equality for writing with clarity and compassion on an issue that is fracturing the student body at Irmo High School.

Alliance promotes tolerance, not sex

By BENNIE COLCLOUGH and C. RAY DREW – Guest Columnists

The question of a gay-straight alliance being formed at Irmo High School and the ensuing resignation of Principal Eddie Walker has created a firestorm of emotion in the Midlands. Thousands of people have spoken out on online blogs. Demonstrations have been held. Prayer vigils have been formed. The emotion has created tremendous misunderstanding.

Gay youth grow up isolated. They often grow up without the support of parents, ministers, teachers or friends. The pervasive negative stereotypes in our society create a horrible dissonance in the minds of gay youth: a choice between hiding the true nature of oneself or facing profound rejection from loved ones. This leads to a frightening fact: Gay teenagers are three times more likely to attempt suicide. Regardless of how you feel about gay people, no one wants our kids to kill themselves.

National research shows that 80 percent of gay students do not know a single supportive adult at school, 38 percent face hostility and violence at school, and 18 percent experience physical assault. Gay students face more verbal harassment and physical violence than any other group of students. The one mitigating factor for these students is knowing a supportive adult at school.

Are gay youth the only ones harassed at school? Absolutely not! Students who are black, Christian, intelligent, Jewish, biracial, Muslim, overweight or otherwise different are often singled out for harassment. Student groups offer these students a safe place to establish a base of friends who understand their shared experience. These clubs can be lifesavers for students who feel alone and isolated.

Irmo High School has a Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Future Rock Stars of America, National Art Club Society, Muslim Student Association, Dinosaur Appreciation Club, Black Student Union, Women in Science and Science Fiction Fantasy Club. There are many more extracurricular clubs on campus. High schools encourage these groups because they enhance the learning environment and provide youth with a chance to belong.

That’s what a gay-straight alliance is: a place to belong, formed by gay and straight students to provide a support mechanism at school to counter the open hostility, harassment and violence experienced by gay students.

These clubs do not promote sex. They are not inconsistent with an abstinence-only education program. They are social groups like any other on campus, monitored by staff and following set policies. And they often serve as the only reprieve from daily harassment.

Few seem to realize that students at Irmo High School tried to form an alliance for more than six years. Few know that the principal fought the formation of this group for years, in violation of the federal Equal Access Act. He buried paperwork. He did not inform district officials. He told students they could form the group only if they went directly to the school board.

He put such restrictions on them that he effectively made the group’s existence impossible. Only when a student, unconditionally accepted by his parents, had the strength to involve outside help did things change. Mr. Walker’s actions repeatedly violated federal law.

If Principal Walker had resigned effective immediately or if he had quietly resigned outside of the media spotlight, we could at least give him credit for the courage to stand up for his convictions, however misguided and damaging we think they are. But he publicly stated his opposition to the group, without giving notice to the district or the school board. He didn’t leave immediately, but gave a one-year notice.

A principal’s leadership sets the tone for staff and students alike. Despite the “Golden Rule” mandate he has provided for the gay-straight alliance, he has deliberately and convincingly delivered the message that gay students are not respected. He clearly communicates that being against these students is a principled notion. Must we wait for a gay student to be beaten up, teased unmercifully or, God forbid, killed as a result of the environment that he has created? Does anyone think a gay student who has been harassed will come to this principal to discuss it?

If Principal Walker truly stands on principle, instead of branding himself a martyr, he should resign immediately. At least he will be acting with consistency. Short of that, the school board has a moral and legal responsibility to remove him.

Rev. Colclough is the minister of Providence Christian Church in Manning and a chaplain with prison ministries; Mr. Drew is executive director of S.C. Equality, which promotes equal justice for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender South Carolinians.

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