A typical Farmington School Board meeting attracts 25 to 30 people. Nearly 200 attended an Oct. 11 meeting. The reason? Homosexuality.
The crowd gathered to discuss the proposal of Piedra Vista High students to form a Gay Straight Alliance (GSA), an idea that caused considerable controversy in the Farmington community. The debate provoked discussion questioning the need for such groups. It has also uncovered deeper questions on a statewide level of whether discrimination against gay and lesbian students is a problem in New Mexico schools.
Janel Ryan, Farmington Municipal Schools superintendent, says the purpose of the proposed GSA is not, as some parents have argued, to talk about issues of sexuality. “[The students] wanted the opportunity to meet with people who were experiencing the same lack of tolerance and discrimination,” Ryan says. But Dean Pecotte, the board’s vice president, disagrees. He says the GSA will discuss sexual subject matter and is therefore inappropriate in a school setting. “There shouldn’t be any student clubs that center around sex. I believe minors are not in a position to make those decisions.”
The dispute prompted the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico (ACLU-NM) and Equality New Mexico to step in on behalf of the students wanting to form the GSA. Under the federal Equal Access Act, “The school board can’t treat clubs differently based on whether or not they like the subject matter the club is dealing with,” says Peter Simonson, executive director of ACLU-NM.
Recognizing that the club could not be banned under current policy, several parents asked the board to consider abolishing all extracurricular clubs. Had their suggestion been approved, it would have affected the entire district. Instead, the board decided to uphold its policy, which “allows all student-initiated clubs to form” says Pecotte. They also agreed to form a committee to review administrative policies regarding extracurricular clubs.
But ACLU-NM and Equality New Mexico are not entirely satisfied with the resolution. The organizations are concerned the new committee could find a way to create restrictions on participation in the GSA by changing club membership requirements for students. Still, Ryan maintains the committee will only put in writing procedures to enforce the current policy on school clubs.
The controversy attracted attention from outside the Farmington community, prompting other areas of the state to question the motivations and benefits of such clubs. Alexis Blizman, executive director of Equality New Mexico, believes GSAs are beneficial for all schools. “There’s all sorts of data out there that [shows] students in schools with GSAs are less likely to be unsafe, less likely to miss school, less likely to feel like they don’t belong,” she says. Vicki Henke, on the other hand, doesn't see the need for the club. Henke's son attends Piedra Vista, and she maintains that there is no discrimination against gay and lesbian students. She says homosexuality is so prevalent on television “it seems normal to them.” Still, she argues, “Anything that has to do with sex, homosexual or heterosexual, should be off campus.”
While many of the arguments over the formation of a GSA come from adults, some Piedra Vista students have also expressed opposition to the club. About 20 students gathered in the school’s theater on Oct. 3 to stage a sit-in.
This type of controversy is not limited to New Mexico. “There’s been quite a bit of work by other ACLU affiliates on this that has actually gone to litigation,” Simonson says. While the APS School Board has never dealt with opposition to the formation of a GSA, New Mexico public schools as a whole struggle with issues of discrimination against gay and lesbian students. Blizman cites the 2005 and 2007 National School Climate Surveys conducted by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network as evidence. “New Mexico received an F,” she says. “Our safe school policies don’t include sexual or gender identity.”