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ASK THE STAFF

September/October 2011

Policy helps reduce angst over student group access

The question for this issue is answered by Kimberly Small, IASB assistant general counsel.

Question : A very controversial student group wants to meet at our high school. Should administrators allow it?

Answer : With very limited exceptions, if the district is a unit or high school district the answer is “Yes.” This answer involves two key concepts: equal access and viewpoint neutrality.

Equal access comes from the Equal Access Act (EAA). The EAA applies to public secondary schools that receive federal financial assistance. It is rooted in the principles of equal treatment and freedom of expression.

Viewpoint neutrality, while embedded in the rationales surrounding the EAA, comes generally from remaining impartial to opinions. It forbids school officials from “picking and choosing” which student groups should have access to school programs and facilities.

Here is the general rule:

If the district allows access to one student group, then it must allow the same access to all student groups — even when the student group’s viewpoints are unpopular or highly controversial (i.e., regardless of the religious, political, philosophical, or other subject matters that the student or student groups address).

Student groups can provide many positive experiences to the school environment. The U.S. Department of Education’s position is that encouraging student groups that discuss difficult issues openly and honestly, in a civil manner, can help districts better address issues of ignorance, bigotry, hatred and discrimination.

The need to address these issues is underscored with recent studies finding that high levels of harassment and bullying correlate with poorer educational outcomes, lower future aspirations, frequent school absenteeism and lower grade-point averages.

School officials who want to reduce controversy about unpopular viewpoints of student groups should consider the following ideas:

• Develop or review and understand an “equal access policy” with the help of the board attorney. The policy should define the basic guidelines to use when student groups request access to school facilities and programs. For an example, see IASB’s sample PRESS policy 7:330, Student Use of Buildings — Equal Access.

• Consider having administrators educate staff, students, parents and community members about the EAA, and its requirements that public schools afford equal treatment to all student groups. Consider explaining that by providing supportive resources to all student groups, the school environment can provide a place for all students to feel safe and affirmed.

• Avoid supporting or the appearance of supporting any particular student group. That means that all student groups must get the same opportunities to form, to convene on school grounds and to have access to the same resources available to other student groups.

The answer to this question assumes the school operates under a limited open forum, because creating a closed forum is very difficult, if not almost impossible. Further, while some points in this answer overlap concerns that board members may have over community use of facilities, the EAA only applies to student group access not community use of facilities.

IASB PRESS subscribers can find more detailed discussions and information about limited open forums in footnote one of 7:330, Student Use of Buildings — Equal Access and the community use of facilities in the footnotes to 8:20, Community Use of School Facilities.

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