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Making Change in Meridian

School district ready to reconsider Gay-Straight Alliance Club at Mountain View High School

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Changing policy is tough enough. Changing someone's mind or heart may be the ultimate challenge.

No one knows for sure what changed the minds or hearts of Meridian School Board trustees when they did a 180-degree turnaround on Oct. 25 regarding a proposed policy governing student organizations. But proponents, advocating for a Gay-Straight Alliance Club at Mountain View High School, said the change was monumental, not just for students' constitutional rights but for tolerance and acceptance. Using the newly revised policy as a foundation, Mountain View students are now ready to reignite their effort to start a club which, at its heart, promotes tolerance for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.

"The safety and well-being of LGBT students, who are often targeted for bullying, must come first," said Krista Perry, co-chair of the Idaho Safe Schools Coalition. "We commend the district for recognizing that."

One year may not seem like a long time, but for a small group of students at Mountain View, it felt like a lifetime. In November 2010, the students attempted to form a GSA Club. In their letter of application, the students proposed an organization "wherein students of differing sexual orientation, including straight allies, could work together to discuss social issues and promote the tolerance of all teens, regardless of characteristics that set them apart from societal norms."

But in January, the Meridian School Board decided to slow the application process down, pending a thorough review.

"Our board said they wanted to look at what clubs we had and what we had been approving," said Eric Exline, the district's director of community relations. "We inquired about all the clubs, and there are a lot of them--a rock-paper-scissor club, a chess club, drag racing. It's an extensive list."

A new policy regarding student organizations in the Meridian district went through several revised drafts, including a few early proposals that got the attention of Lambda Legal, one of the nation's largest legal organizations fighting for the civil rights of the LGBT community.

"The changes that they were proposing would have been very bad for gay-straight alliances in particular, including a prohibition of topics that clubs could discuss," said Peter Renn, staff attorney with Lambda Legal. "The one proposal that troubled us the most was the requirement of parental permission. Kids who are in most need of participation in a Gay-Straight Alliance are most often the kids who have the greatest difficulty seeking and obtaining parental permission."

Eric Anderson, 20, and Alejandra Ayon, 19, said they knew exactly what Renn was talking about. Both struggled for acceptance when they attended Borah High School in the Boise School District, but they said they found "a lifeline" in a Gay-Straight Alliance club.

"My family is Mormon. Growing up, I wasn't terribly comfortable with myself," said Anderson. "By the time I was 16, I knew I was gay, but it was a very slow coming-out process. I didn't get too much support from our spiritual community. It wasn't until I was 17, when I knew I had to tell my parents. It was terrifying."

Anderson remembered the first time he walked into a Gay-Straight Alliance Club meeting at Borah High School.

"It was a total accident," said Anderson. "I thought I was walking into a tennis club meeting, but some of my friends were in the room so I stayed. I found a place where I could associate with other people who were gay. If people have the chance to be authentic, they perform so much better in school because they're not worried about being called a fag. It can ruin your day at the very least. It really hurts."

Ayon didn't join Borah's Gay-Straight Alliance because she was gay.

"It was really crazy because I had to come out to my parents as being straight," said Ayon. "They were sure I was a lesbian because I hung out with so many gay people. I had straight friends that didn't understand, so I had to remind them that being straight was as much a part of the Gay-Straight Alliance as anyone. I always point out that I'm a straight advocate."

Meanwhile the Meridian School District spent this past summer researching appropriate policies for organizations, not just Gay-Straight Alliances but all clubs in Idaho's largest school district.

"In reality, that's how many policies morph," said Dr. Bruce Gestrin, the district's assistant superintendent and the man charged with crafting the policy. "You find good examples, question them, investigate them, and ask if it passes the legal test and meets our needs. It's never as simple as some people think. It always takes a lot of input."

Gestrin said he spoke to principals throughout his district and researched similar policies in districts from across the nation. In the end, the policy removed any requirement of parental permission. Additionally the new policy denied any restriction to appropriate discussion of sexual orientation or general discussions of sexually related topics. Ironically, when the Board of Trustees approved the new policy, it held the meeting at Mountain View High School.

It has been a full year since the original request for a Gay-Straight Alliance Club at Mountain View, but Perry confirmed for BW that a new group of students has resubmitted a GSA club application, which is expected to be considered by the district's school board, using the new policy as a foundation, on Tuesday, Dec. 13.

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