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MP high school, middle school students find safe space with Gay Straight Alliance clubs

GTNS photo by Grace King

Liam Hallawith, 15, left, Melissa Alexander, 15, Haleigh Staats, 15, Amanda Schurbon and Morgan Menke, 16, are all members of the Gay Straight Alliance Club at Mt. Pleasant Community High School. They have helped launch a similar club at Mt. Pleasant Middle School and say it would have been beneficial for them to have that designated safe place when they were middle school students.
GTNS photo by Grace King Liam Hallawith, 15, left, Melissa Alexander, 15, Haleigh Staats, 15, Amanda Schurbon and Morgan Menke, 16, are all members of the Gay Straight Alliance Club at Mt. Pleasant Community High School. They have helped launch a similar club at Mt. Pleasant Middle School and say it would have been beneficial for them to have that designated safe place when they were middle school students.

When the Gay Straight Alliance, a club at Mt. Pleasant Middle School, held its first meeting on March 20, 25 students attended enthusiastically and with gusto, club sponsors said.

“It was enthusiastic and the amount of support those kids needed and the gusto they came there with ... they started opening up to one another and the love they all needed was dripping from that room,” said Mari Abry, club sponsor of the Gay Straight Alliance (GSA) at Mt. Pleasant Community High School and language arts teacher.

The high school’s GSA club was established in November 2017, after a student who is transgender asked Abry to sponsor the club. Since then, about 10 students have met every Thursday during the school year from 3:15 to 4:30 p.m., swapping routine stories about their day.

The Mt. Pleasant Middle School GSA was launched at the request of students. Allison White, middle school GSA club sponsor and guidance counselor, said she was thrilled to get the chance to help start this club and finds it really rewarding.

“It’s one of my favorite things I get to do with students because they want to be there, and it’s their club and they want to do it,” White said. “It’s not hurting anybody, and I hope it would keep going on for years to come.”

The club, however, has come under fire from parents, students and faculty. Parents are concerned about what the club may be teaching their kids. The club has highlighted some of the divisiveness among students and a teacher drew concern when he took down a poster advertising the club.

‘A Friendship Club,’ Nothing More

Abry and White have received comments from some parents who do not want their students to be a part of the club.

White said that sometimes she doesn’t even know how to respond to students who say their parents don’t accept them or that gay people go to hell.

“I don’t think there always is a solution,” White said. “They do have to live at home for six or so more years. It’s kind of heartbreaking that their families would say that stuff to them.”

“I wish they understood it’s OK for their kids to be who they are,” White continued. “Drop whatever preconceived notion they have of what their kid is supposed to be like and instead giving them the freedom to be who they want to be.”

White said it’s a minority of middle school students who are unsupportive of the GSA, but it’s a very vocal minority.

“Once we start listening to (students who are unsupportive of the GSA), it can seem like people are not supportive of (LGBTQ) students, but I think most people are. It’s kind of like a friendship club, and how you identify walking in is how we’re going to accept you.”

Abry said people can push back against the GSA, but it is not going away.

“Any time it feels too hard, it makes me think about how it’s for those kids who came decked out with their pride flags to that first meeting and had stories of all the terrible things their families had said to them about their sexuality and how the kids cried about how they were treated poorly at school and at home,” Abry said. “Personally, I can go through some angry parents and students so those kids can feel safe.”

John Henriksen, superintendent, said he has also received some concern from parents of middle school students about the club, and that it “divided students” the week of the first GSA club meeting. He did not elaborate on how it divided students.

“We had to deal with disciplinary matters with students who took either side of the issue,” Henriksen said.

Henriksen said he promises “wholeheartedly” the idea of students having a safe and comfortable learning environment.

Henriksen also said that it’s important for educators “to recognize and understand the developmental process of the adolescent brain and mind in middle school.”

Miscommunication

After the club was approved by Mt. Pleasant Middle School Principal Nate Lange, White hung posters in the hallways which read, “Gay Straight Alliance Club: This is a safe space for LGBTQ students and allies,” with details of when and where the club was meeting.

When a middle school teacher saw the club posters, he was unsure whether it had been approved by the administration and asked associate principal Vita Long if she knew anything about it, Henriksen said. Long told the teacher to take the posters down because the club had not been approved, Henriksen said.

“It was a lack of communication,” Henriksen said.

Henriksen said that any student can form a club as long as they have approval from administrators and a faculty sponsor.

“If we allow an after-school club to use our facility, we have to allow any club to use our facility. If we allow one club to put up posters, we have to allow all clubs to put up posters. What you do for one, you have to do for all,” Henriksen said.

In emails shared with The News, Lincoln Davis, a science teacher at Mt. Pleasant Middle School, who took down the posters, expressed concern that the club is “condoning sexual activity,” adding that he might have his “parent hat on.”

The emails were in response to an email White sent informing faculty and staff that she put up posters advertising the GSA and that it was approved by the administration. The email was sent after confusion over whether the club had been approved or not.

White said that the GSA does not condone sexual activity at all. “I want to kind of set the record straight on that,” she said.

Abry said in her classroom at the high school, she has some pamphlets from the health teacher that talk about the risk of sexually transmitted infections, but “that’s the most sexual thing you’re going to find in my room.”

Abry said that the GSA does not promote sexual activity; however, it would be a disservice to any student in any classroom if they had questions about their sexual health and a teacher couldn’t answer them.

With the district’s support, Abry attended a conference last summer with the health teacher where one of the lecturers discussed safe sex in the LGBTQ community.

A Safe Learning

Environment

GSAs contribute to creating a safe and supportive learning environment for not only LGBTQ youth, but all youth within the school, according to a 2017 GLSEN National School Climate Survey, a survey of lesbian, gay, bisexual transgender and queer youth.

“Studies show that having a Gay Straight Alliance at a school helps students do better in academics and they are less likely to be tardy or skip school,” said Becky Smith, director of youth engagement for Iowa Safe Schools. “Gay Straight Alliances overall make schools a safer and more inclusive place.

“I think it’s important to remember that Gay Straight Alliances are created by students, and students know what they need to feel safe and supported at school,” Smith continued.

GSAs are protected by the Equal Access Act, a federal law passed in 1984, which requires federally funded secondary schools to provide equal access to extracurricular student clubs.

Nate Monson, executive director or Iowa Safe Schools, said that Iowa Teaching Standards and Criteria from the Iowa Department of Education are “really clear” that with an Iowa teaching license, teachers need to be inclusive of all students.

“Gay Straight Alliances are lifesaving entities,” Monson said. “Studies continue to show that when a Gay Straight Alliance exists in a school district, suicide risk goes down for all students. Frankly, any staff member who opposes that is in the wrong profession. Our job is to protect all students.”

A Mentorship

Students who are a part of the high school’s GSA have dropped by the middle school during club time in support of their GSA and to act as mentors to the younger students.

Melissa Alexander, 15, said that when she was a student at Mt. Pleasant Middle School, she would have found it beneficial to have a GSA.

“I feel like it’s important for me to help the middle school (students) out,” Alexander said.

Amanda Schurbon, who is a part of MPCHS’s GSA, said the club has opened up conversations between her and her friends about what it means to be an ally of the LGBTQ community.

“This girl in my grade, she asked me for information,” Schurbon said. “She said, ‘I support you guys,’ but she wanted to be educated so she doesn’t say the wrong things.”

Morgan Menke, 16, had a similar experience with fellow classmates.

“I was proud to be part of a moment where I could educate somebody, and I definitely would not be able to do that if I wasn’t a part of this group,” Menke said.

Menke, co-president of MPCHS’s GSA, agreed that being a part of GSA in middle school would have made her experience a lot better. Menke said that while some students joke that they want a club that’s a safe space where they can be straight, Menke said that it’s already safe to be straight.

“It’s not safe to be gay in some places,” Menke said.