ROGERSVILLE — Approval of a Gay-Straight Alliance organization for Volunteer High School was tabled Thursday to give the Hawkins County Board of Education a month to study the student proposal and to determine if the decision should be made at the BOE or school level.
There was some confusion created by conflicting board policies, one of which states that extracurricular activities must be approved by the board.
However, another policy states that school clubs and organizations are to be approved by the principal.
What’s not in dispute, however, is how the courts are likely to rule if the request is denied and a lawsuit is filed.
Attorneys offer advice
BOE Chairman Bob Larkins said he was advised against denying the request by Knoxville attorney Lawrence Giordano, who represents Hawkins County Schools.
“This is a matter that has been tested throughout the country and also in Tennessee,” Larkins said. “It’s one that he (Giordano) said, if it went to litigation, we would have a hard time winning if we denied it.”
County Attorney Jim Phillips, who attended Thursday’s BOE meeting, said he concurs with Giordano’s advice, as did Tennessee School Boards Association senior legal counsel Randall Bennett, whom Larkins spoke to about the issue.
Approval of the GSA was part of the BOE’s consent agenda Thursday evening, but was pulled for separate discussion at the request of board member Tecky Hicks.
Confusion over which policy applies
Hicks noted that the agenda didn’t specify whether the proposed GSA is a club, organization or extracurricular activity.
“We should not even hear this at all if it’s a club because the policy says it’s the principal’s responsibility to approve clubs,” Hicks said. “I know we have in the past, but that’s just another violation of our policy.”
The other policy states, “The board shall initially approve each specific extracurricular activity so that proper support and supervision may be assured.”
Larkins described the two policies as they relate to the GSA request as “muddy.”
Some board members said they hadn’t seen the four-page student request for the organization titled “Extracurricular Club Proposal Procedure” prior to the meeting.
“I’m not hardly prepared to make a decision on any of this without studying,” Larkins added. “This is such as delicate situation. We just got information tonight. We have some policy questions that Mr. Hicks has raised. I want to carefully go back and look at those too.”
Larkins said the request will be placed on the December BOE meeting agenda.
Alliance co-founder speaks out
Volunteer High School senior Hannah Yarosh, who is one of three co-founders of the proposed GSA, told the Times News after Thursday’s meeting that one of the goals of the organization is to build an environment based on tolerance and acceptance.
Yarosh said the GSA would allow students “a safe place” to talk about LGBT issues, as well as help increase understanding and respect for everyone, regardless of their sexual orientation.
She estimated there are at least 20 students interested in joining the organization, some of whom are gay, and some who, like her, aren’t gay but consider themselves “allies.”
“I’ve had so many people texting me over the past few weeks asking when we’re meeting, when they can join, what they can do. It’s been really wonderful,” Yarosh said. “I’m looking to have a place for people to talk about issues they’re facing such as coming out, and dealing with different slang terms that are used a lot, and different types of bullying, because it’s very specific and it does happen a lot. I am fortunate enough to not be around it (bullying) as much as others, but it could be a lot better.”
GSA mission statement
The mission statement presented to the BOE in the organization’s proposal states, “The goal of the Volunteer High School Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) is to provide a safe coalition between all members of the community, regardless of sexual orientation, by building an environment based on tolerance and acceptance. ... We want to set a new precedent for those who come after us in hopes that some day a group such as ours will no longer be a necessity.
“The GSA is a student run club which provides a safe place for students to meet, support each other, talk about and plan anti-bullying activities, and work to end homophobia and transphobia within their school and community.”