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Mason High School approves gay/straight alliance

By DANIEL STURM


Mason Public High School students (from left) Kristen Spink, Jason Bryans, Kate Papachristou, and Christine Carmichael gathered at Theio's Restaurant on East Michigan Avenue in Lansing to discuss the obstacles they said they faced in establishing a Gay/Straight Alliance. Bryans turned to help from an attorney. On Tuesday, Mason's principal approved the club.
The events surrounding the formation of a Gay/Straight Alliance at Mason High School - which won approval Tuesday -- might provide insight to tri-county school district officials on how they should and should not respond to alienated students who are reaching out to their peers.

Our story begins on the day of the Michigan Education Assessment Program Test (MEAP) in the spring 2002 at Mason High School -- the day senior Jason Bryans turned in an essay on the subject of how unsafe it was to be an openly gay youth at his school. In fact, his passion for arts and science was the only reason he could still get out of bed in the morning and to go to school, Bryans wrote, "despite the usual 'faggot' and 'fucking queer' comments I get while passing down the hall, or during that brief moment when the teacher leaves the room."

Until writing this MEAP essay, the 18-year-old student hadn't informed school officials of this daily harassment, feeling that after all, "if they don't stop it in the hallways, why would they do something about it if I told them?"

In May 2002 the U.S. Treasury Department, which is responsible for the test, returned Bryans' essay to Mason High School with a note that this student was at risk, and that this matter should receive "prompt attention."

As a result, Bryans met with his counselor, Christopher Janson, after which he decided that the best way to battle the jarring words he heard in the hall would be to organize a Gay/Straight Alliance. Janson agreed to act as the club's adviser. After speaking with gay friends, attending a conference, and searching for information online, Bryans wrote a charter and submitted it for approval.

According to the charter, the GSA's purpose would be to build bridges among students of all sexual orientations, through activities such as movie- night and trips to gay-themed events. The charter also noted that there were 20 students interested in joining.

On Feb. 5, Bryans received a memo signed by Principal Lance Delbridge and Superintendent Larry J. Corbett, which he interpreted to be a bureaucratic obstacle meant to hinder the club's founding. The administrators wanted to know exactly what events would take place at club meetings, what topics the club would discuss, and what speakers would invited.

"I didn't feel it was right to ask these questions again," after they'd already been addressed in the charter, said Bryans. The well-informed student decided to file a Freedom of Information Act Request to find whether any of the other 25 existing clubs at Mason High had answered such additional questions. He picked up the FOIA documents two weeks later, and learned that not only was his the only club to be given the extra questionnaire, but that only nine clubs had bothered to officially register, and only one other, the art club, had even submitted the supposedly required club charter.

"I felt they weren't treating me equally," said Bryans. At a Lansing area conference in January, American Civil Liberties Union attorney Jay Kaplan had informed Michigan Gay-/Straight Alliance students that it was their right to form clubs at their schools even if the administration disapproved of or disagreed with the group's message and goals. Bryans decided to consult with Lansing attorney Thomas Rasmusson, who took the case pro bono.

In a Feb. 26 letter to the Mason Sachool District, Rasmusson wrote that the request for additional information from the GSA was "a serious breach." He believed the school district was violating the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and the Equal Access Act of 1984. Under the latter, all schools receiving federal funding must provide equal access to resources for all non-curricular clubs. Rasmusson asked the principal to approve the GSA application.

The co-chairman of Lansing's Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, Harvey Brenneise, said he wasn't surprised to hear that a new gay student club would be surrounded by a "big stink." "The rural districts haven't gotten the message yet." Brenneise pointed out that schools across the country were pressured by religiously conservative groups to add extra requirements for GSA clubs, but that such requirements always ended up losing in court. There are roughly 50 Gay-/Straight Alliances at Michigan public high schools, Eastern, Everett Williamstown, Okemos, Jackson and Holt. Brenneise doesn't recall anyone giving "any of this trouble to the organizers" at the other area schools.

Brenneise pointed out the Mason High School Web site claims that the "highest priority is given to creating a secure, caring, learning environment" and that educational taxpayer dollars were being used soundly. "Well, in this case they're doing neither. It's time for them to be held accountable for that."

School districts across the country have sometimes gone to extremes in order to block Gay/Straight Alliances, a good example of which was the case of East High School students in Salt Lake City, which tried to form a Gay/Straight Alliance in 1998. It were blocked by a school board policy. The alliance was finally formed in September 2000, after a federal district judge found that the school district violated the Equal Access Mason Superintendent Corbett denied that he and the principal were creating additional obstacles for the Gay/Straight Alliance. He said that the problem was that Bryans claimed to have a club adviser that in fact didn't. Corbit said he was convinced that existing difficulties could be clarified quickly through a meeting. Diversity and tolerance were important objectives in the Mason School District, the superintendant said, and he denied that Mason High had serious problems with hostile or homophobic acts.

Students at Mason High tell a different story. "Our school is a dead-end street," said Kate Papachristou, a senior. "I see people ridiculed for their sexual preference, but the school is not helping them one bit. I blame the teachers for not stopping it, the principal for not telling the teachers to stop it, and the district for stopping the GSA."

Junior Anna Taylor remembers going to a school dance last winter together with Jason and his boyfriend. She said that when she was dancing with her date, football players told her, "Look at this guy, that's so gross, that just bothers me so much." Taylor said she was afraid that they would harm her gay buddy.

She believes that in general her school has as double standard. At a recent basketball game, two freshmen fought because one called the other one names because she was black. "The girl that called her names got hit across the face, and they both got suspended." Spink said, adding, "Nobody has done anything against slurring gays." Researchers say harassment of gay students is rampant. More than half of teens surveyed last year by the National Mental Health Association said classmates use terms such as "fag" and "dyke" on a daily basis. Human Rights Watch, a New York headquartered international group, estimates that 2 million U.S. students each year are bullied because they are, or are believed to be, homosexuals. According to their 2001 study "Hatred in the Hallway," the unrelenting verbal attacks on lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students undermines students' ability to focus at school. "When school officials routinely ignore the pervasive verbal harassment or dismiss its seriousness, they create an atmosphere that the gay students are powerless to change and from which they can only escape by dropping out of school," concludes the report.

Some school systems have kept up initiatives related to sexual orientation without sparking major controversy. Michigan's education department offer a program called "Safeguards for Sexual Minority Youth" training teachers and other school personnel. Polly Brainerd, a Safe and Drug Free School coordinator at the Eaton Intermediate School District in Charlotte, which hosted a training program for the Tri-County area just last week, said that Mason Public School officials have attended the training this year and last year.

"I think it's a very good program," said Brenneise. In addition, the Michigan Board of Education's Model Code of Student Conduct designed to ban bullying. However, school boards are nor required to adopt it. An anti-bullying legislation introduced in May 2001, the House Bill 4746, died with the end of the legislative term. Sean Kosofski of the Detroit-based Triangle Foundation said they were campaigning to get a different bill (Senate Bill 92) passed, but he was pessimistic that Republicans would allow any bill through that mentioned the words "sexual orientation."

Like her friend Jason Bryans, Christine Carmichael will graduate in June 2003. She said that she was disappointed that her school had been so close-minded. "High school would have been a lot happier of an environment if everyone accepted everyone else for who they were. A lot of people are ignorant, because no one tells them it's okay that people are gay." Tuesday, Principal Delbridge notified attorney Rasmusson he was approving the club. "I look forward to working with Jason and the club advisor in order to facilitate a positive beginning for the Mason High School Gay-Straight Alliance," he wrote.


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