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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, April 1, 2011 - Volume 39 Issue 13
Controversy continues in Kennewick over Gay-straight alliance
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Controversy continues in Kennewick over Gay-straight alliance

by Mike Andrew - SGN Staff Writer

The Kennewick School Board voted on April 21 to give a Gay-straight alliance at Kennewick High School equal access to school resources.

Their vote did not end the controversy, however. Instead, new charges are being leveled by the respective sides in the dispute.

Kennewick School Superintendent Dave Bond complained to SGN that the story was 'poorly covered and misrepresented in our local media.'

On the other side, Mark Lee, executive director of Kennewick's Vista Center for LGBTQ youth and one of the leaders of the push to get approval for the GSA, charged that Bond had 'threatened to shut down all school clubs' rather than allow GSA access to school bulletin boards and P.A. announcements.

But 'the assertion that I or the school board threatened to suspend all student clubs rather than allow GSAs to exist is patently false,' Superintendent Bond replied in an email to SGN.

The facts both sides agree on are these:

Kennewick schools were not in compliance with the federal Equal Access Act. Bond informed the School Board of that fact at its March meeting.

The Equal Access Act was passed in 1984 to compel federally funded secondary schools - and almost all public schools receive federal funds - to provide equal access to school resources for extracurricular clubs.

The law was initially pushed by religious groups who wanted students to be able to conduct Bible study programs on school property. Ironically, it has also become the basis for litigation upholding the right of students to form GSAs.

According to the law, all student clubs that are not organized around the school curriculum must have equal access to school facilities, bulletin boards, and P.A. announcements.

According to Bond's March presentation, the Kennewick School Board would either have to take away all access from all student clubs, or give them all the same level of access.

Bond also consulted with the principals of all the high schools in the district and reported their unanimous recommendation for an inclusive access policy to the school board's April 21 meeting.

The board then voted 3-2 to allow all clubs to post notices on school bulletin boards and make in-school P.A. announcements, pending a final revision of school district policy expected in June.

Apart from these bare facts, interpretations of the principal players' actions and motives diverge.

According to Lee, Bond and at least one Mormon school board member wanted nothing to do with GSAs, and wanted to restrict bulletin board access and P.A. announcements so the Kennewick High GSA would be unsuccessful.

'If you can't announce upcoming meetings, you can't reach people outside of a small circle,' Lee told SGN. 'Then the GSA would fail.'

But in his lengthy email to SGN, Bond denied opposing GSAs.

'When I was a principal at Kamiakin High from 2001-2006, we had a GSA there,' Bond wrote. 'We also had religious-based clubs like Youth on Fire and Fellowship of Christian Athletes operating under the Equal Access Act. & This persistent misreporting of the facts is frustrating.'

For whatever reason, the Kamiakin High School GSA has not survived.

According to Lee, with the school board decision now making it possible to organize a GSA at Kennewick High School, there will be five GSAs in the Tri-Cities - one in Kennewick, one in Pasco, and three in Richland.

The Richland and Pasco GSAs have always had full access to school resources.

While not a GSA, Lee's Vista Center provides a place for high school students and post-high-school youth to meet, socialize, get help with schoolwork, and access counseling services.

'We've seen over 1,000 kids,' Lee told SGN. 'There were 130 unique individuals in 2010, and maybe 40 regulars. I'd guess 20% are couch-surfing.'

The Vista Center also provides a sit-down dinner every Friday night, with food usually donated by a community member. Lee says the dinners regularly draw about 18 young people.

'I'm also working on getting a chaplain for the center. So many of our youth have problems because of religion. So I want to say to [religious people], 'You guys work on this.'

Lee is also a member of the Youth Suicide Prevention Coalition.

A study published in the April edition of the journal Pediatrics found that suicide attempts among Gay teens are more frequent in areas where schools lack programs supporting Gay rights.

The study specifically cited GSAs as one factor in making teens feel safer.

In response to questions from SGN, Bond indicates his school district has policies addressing suicide and safety concerns for LGBTQ students.

'We have policies and procedures in place to reduce the kinds of situations that might cause students to consider suicide,' Bond wrote to SGN.

'During the five years while I was at Kamiakin, a student and a graduate of less than a year committed suicide. Both events were tragic and impacted the students and staff immensely, and caused us to redouble our efforts to make sure students felt comfortable and welcome at school.'

Noting that the Kennewick School District is revising its anti-bullying policies, Bond said the district takes a tough stand on school safety.

'All of our high schools and their administrators take a tough stance - as does the district - against any harassment and bullying,' he wrote. 'Every student in our district has the right to attend school and not be harassed or bullied about anything. When I was a principal, I had zero tolerance for harassment and bullying. Our current principals feel the same.'

Lee, on the other hand, has his doubts.

'I just heard about a student who got a five-day suspension,' he told SGN. 'His dad called me. What happened was, the son asked to be excused from gym, and he told the school it was because he wanted to pay more attention to academics. Then he was called into the administration office and he said he it was because he didn't feel safe. & So he was suspended for lying!'

'Do you know,' Lee continues, 'that there are grown people in our community who will only give [Vista Center] cash donations? They won't write a check because they don't want to be outed.

'I tell them, 'If it's that hard for you, imagine what it feels like to a 16-year-old kid.'

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