The Salt Lake City Board of Education will not re-examine the district's clubs policy, implemented in 1996 after months of public debate over a proposed Gay-Straight Alliance club at East High School.
Three of seven board members Tuesday said they were interested in re-examining the policy for reasons ranging from giving gay and lesbian students a safe haven to looking at ways to set rules for establishing noncurricular clubs, 46 of which were banned under the policy.A federal lawsuit challenges the district policy.
"Now is the time to stand tall and make a difference in the lives of our students," said board member Ila Rose Fife who, like Richard Tyler and school board President Karen Derrick, favored reopening policy discussions.
Fife said clubs give students positive after-school opportunities. She also said a Gay-Straight Alliance could be a life support for homosexual students, who she said are three times more likely to commit suicide than straight students.
But other board members feared an altered policy could invite hate groups into the schools, disrupt the district's educational mission, and send a message that lawsuits set the school board's agenda.
"We should bolster public assurance that we are in the education business, not the club business," said board member Kathy Black. Neither she nor Tyler were on the board for the 4-3 vote to allow only curriculum-related clubs. The vote came in February 1996.
Jeff Fox, whose daughter Ivy Fox is a plaintiff in the lawsuit, said he was surprised that so many board members were willing to re-examine the policy.
"This is the only school district in the entire country I'm aware of that decided to ban all school clubs for the purpose of eliminating one they didn't like," he said.
"The majority of the school board is making a decision based on political interests rather than what's in the best interest of the students. I think eliminating the Young Democrats, the Young Republicans, strikes at the very heart of our democratic system . . . When the school board banned Students Against Drunk Driving, it sent entirely the wrong message."
Last March, the Utah and northern California ACLU chapters, Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund and the National Center for Lesbian Rights in San Francisco filed a lawsuit on behalf of East High students Fox and Keysha Barnes and their respective parents, Kay Kosow Fox and James Barnes.
Earlier this week, attorneys filed an amended complaint adding plain-tiff West High School senior Leah Farrell and her mother, Kelly Hogarty, to the lawsuit. Farrell wants to establish an environmental club and a Young Dem-o-crats organization but school policy prevents her from doing so.
"This broadens the complaint to reflect the reality this is a very broad-ranging lawsuit for all student groups," said Stephen Clark, legal director of the Utah chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.
The lawsuit names as defendants the Salt Lake City Board of Education, Superintendent Darline Robles and former Assistant Su-per-in-ten-dent Harold Trussel. It seeks an injunction on the school board's decision and legal fees.
The lawsuit alleges the district has established a limited open forum for clubs and violates students' equal-access rights in allowing some unapproved clubs, such as Future Business Leaders of America, to meet at school. The district has said those clubs are tied to the curriculum.
The federal Equal Access Act allows public schools to allow all clubs or only those directly tied to the curriculum.
Meanwhile, both sides have attempted mediation, but to no avail. The school district has declined a plaintiff's offer to settle the lawsuit provided the district reinstate all clubs and pay attorney fees. In that vein, Derrick says the board's discussion Tuesday must not be misconstrued.
"This is not a settlement offer. This is just a question," she said before the meeting.
Student school board member Lori Cox, who attends West High, says most students have buried the clubs issue and learned to live with the district's policy.