The small public school district of Gull Lake, located in this tiny southwest Michigan township, is once again a mirror reflection of the national debate about the rights of gay and lesbian high school students.
The battle is over whether students have the right to create clubs, called Gay-Straight Alliances, or if parents, school boards and administrators have a right to stop them.
In 1999, the U.S. Supreme Court weighed in, saying that gay-straight alliances did have a right to form and operate in schools.
In 2003, Gull Lake Community School was at the center of a controversy over the formation of a GSA. The ACLU of Michigan’s LBGT Project sent letters to the district expressing concerns about differential treatment for the GSA. After two letters to and at least one conversation with then-superintendent Robert Duke, Jay Kaplan, the staff attorney for the ACLU of Michigan’s LBGT Project, thought the issues had been resolved. Kaplan said he was assured the district was dealing with the issue and would come into compliance with the law.
And that’s where the GSA issue stayed, simmering. That is, until late last month, when a staff member from the Triangle Foundation, an anti-violence and advocacy group for LBGT issues located in Detroit, called Gull Lake High School.
On Feb. 27, Brett Beckerson, communications associate for Triangle, was calling the group’s list of high schools with active GSAs. His job was to simply verify that all the groups remained in operation. He left a message for a social worker or counselor to call him back. Instead, he received a call back from Gull Lake High School principal Jim Corstange.
“He said ‘that the group that met there was in no way associated with the school. A group like that would not happen there,'” Beckerson said. “We got so much hostility and hatred back. That was the only school that called us back with such hostility.”
Shortly after this exchange with Corstange, 18-year-old Lindsey Kamen, the president of the Richland-area Gay-Straight Alliance, which meets at Gull Lake High School, contacted Triangle Foundation. They directed her to Kaplan at the ACLU and she presented the attorney with a host of allegations that her group was being treated differently than other clubs at Gull Lake High School. Because the club is not a curricular club or linked directly to class credits, school rules forbid the GSA from identifying as the Gull Lake High School GSA. They are instead required to refer to themselves as the “Richland area GSA.”
In a letter dated March 6 and sent to superintendent Rich Ramsey, Kaplan wrote, “If what Ms. Kamen has stated is true, the District has not developed an acceptable policy regarding non-curricular clubs.”
“I am questioning what is going on here,” Kaplan said. “I had this conversation with the superintendent five years ago. It sounds like the school has an issue with this club.”
An issue that could land the District in court, Kaplan said.
“It’s been a long-running tradition to be homophobic in our school,” said GSA president and 18-year-old senior Lindsey Kamen. “We were told a few years ago the school board voted to have the GSA as a school-affiliated club and it failed.”
And so the group began meeting in the Presbyterian Church in Richland and took on the name Richland Area Gay-Straight Alliance. The group met there until spring of 2006, when the principal allowed the group, under the supervision of a staff member, to meet in the school. But the group was not allowed to have announcements on the school public address system, and in many cases teachers refused to hang up posters for the group.
The group was allowed to meet as a non-curricular club, meaning its purpose was not directly related to a class. Other such clubs include a bowling club and an equestrian club, said Jim Corstange, principal of the high school.
Student Casey Asbel, a 17-year-old senior, said there is also a Bible club. “I remember them making an announcement for a prayer club,” Casey said. But the GSA was not permitted the same privilege.
Reached early last week, Corstange said he felt he was helping the GSA.
“It will be interesting to see how I am not treating them the same,” he said by phone. “If I am not meeting the laws and standards, I will make sure I am.”
At first, Corstange denied there was a GSA at the school, just as Triangle’s Beckerson claims happened Feb. 27.
“We don’t have one,” he said. “We have one which is a non-curricular club. Gull Lake does not sponsor a gay straight alliance club because we would have to pay an adviser. We provide them a room they can meet in. It is not a Gull Lake Schools thing.”
Superintendent Rich Ramsey said non-curricular groups are allowed to put up posters, use the public address system and have announcements on the in-school televisions.
“It would be inaccurate if they claim that,” Ramsey said when asked about allegations that the GSA had been denied those privileges, “to the best of my knowledge.”
Perhaps the most serious concerns raised by parents and students was Corstange’s return of $950 of a $1,000 grant from the Kalamazoo Community Foundation.
While still meeting at the church, the group received the grant from the foundation for a variety of educational programs and to purchase T-shirts, said Gloria Royal, vice-president of marketing and communications.
The grant was given to the students in May 2006. Over the summer and autumn, students were given permission to begin meeting at the school.
Kamen said after weeks of negotiating with Corstange, the principal agreed to allow the students to keep the money in the school office. The agreement, Kamen said, was that the group would be solely responsible for the money, and the district would not have anything to do with writing receipts for the distribution of the money. The club leadership agreed and brought the money to the school.
Kamen said that without consulting with the students, Corstange took it upon himself to return the money to the foundation.
“You bet I did, because they wanted me to run it through the school and they were not sanctioned,” Corstange said about returning the money.
“We have an inclusiveness agreement that is part of our grant,” Royal said. “Apparently he knew that the board wasn’t going to be able to sign off on it, so he gave a portion of the money back, a majority… . He apparently didn’t even broach it with his board. There was an issue he just knew wasn’t going to happen.”
Royal said the return of the money was “unusual.” She said the group had funded other Kalamazoo county GSAs and to her knowledge the money had never been returned before.
“Personally, I think it was his way of making sure we couldn’t do something,” Kamen said of Corstange’s motivations.
School superintendent Ramsey declined to comment about the grant money.
Atmosphere of harassment
Students say their adviser, who they asked not to be named for fear of retribution, has been supportive as they battle what they see as an anti-gay atmosphere. But because the teacher is probationary, she fears rocking the boat too much because she might lose her job.
After an incident where the students stood up about the anti-gay harassment they were experiencing, the teacher came to the group, Kamen said, and told them in tears, “I guarantee if I continue, I will lose my job.”
A 2005 study of 1,732 students aged 13-20 from all 50 states and the District of Columbia conducted by GLSEN found, among other things:
-75.4 percent of students heard derogatory remarks such as “faggot” or “dyke” frequently or often at school, and nearly nine out of 10 reported hearing “that’s so gay” or “you’re so gay” – meaning stupid or worthless – frequently or often.
-Over a third of students experienced physical harassment at school on the basis of sexual orientation and more than a quarter on the basis of their gender expression. Almost 18 percent of students had been physically assaulted because of their sexual orientation and over a tenth because of their gender expression.
That same study found Michigan LBGT students had an even harder time than their national counter parts. The study found:
-Almost all students reported hearing high frequencies of homophobic remarks at school
-Nine out of 10 students heard negative remarks about gender expression, such as someone not acting “masculine enough” or “feminine enough,” at school.
The events 17-year-old Casey Asbel encountered earlier this school year tell the same story. In her math class, Asbel heard other students harass a male student.
“There was this boy saying ‘faggot’ this and ‘faggot’ that and totally gay bashing another boy,” Asbel recalled. “I just sat there for awhile, and then I said aren’t you going to do anything?”
When the teacher declined to stop the anti-gay harassment, she left the room and went to the counselor’s office. The counselor and Asbel approached the assistant principal who went to talk to the teacher. The teacher denied hearing the harassment.
Later that day, Asbel said the vice principal approached her. “He said, ‘I want you to know that we are aware of the situations that are going on,'” Asbel recalled.”‘Unfortunately, there is nothing we can do about it. You understand, though, right?'”
Administration officials refused to answer questions about this incident in a follow up call citing the letter from the ACLU. But in an earlier interview, Principal Corstange denied there was a bullying or harassment problem in his school.
“If there is, I am not aware of it,” Corstange said. “If there is, we will definitely take care of it in a moment’s notice. Nothing has been reported to me.”
Both Kamen and Asbel said they were aware of numerous instances of anti-gay slurs used in the school.
“Every day,” Asbel said. “Pretty much every class period.”
“If I filled out a (harassment complaint) form every time (an anti-gay slur was used), I would have to walk around with a file full of forms,” Kamen said.
Kamen said she has seen students involved in the National Day of Silence, a program where students do not speak for an entire day to symbolize the silence of gay teens and the closet, targeted with people “throwing things” and “pushing them against lockers.”
Asked if she is afraid, Kamen is quiet for a moment. Then carefully she talks about 15-year-old Lawrence King, a California middle school student shot down in a classroom in February. The 14-year-old assailant has reportedly said he shot King for being gay.
“That could be me. I could be the next Lawrence King,” she said. “I live with that fear everyday.”
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