Secretary of Education Arne Duncan warned school districts Tuesday against attempting to shut down lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) clubs and gay-straight alliances.
In the open "Dear Colleagues" letter, Duncan stressed that LGBT students are often the target of bullying and verbal harassment, and that after-school clubs can help students cope with the bullying.
"By encouraging dialogue and providing supportive resources, these groups can help make schools safe and affirming environments for everyone," Duncan wrote. Duncan claims that some school districts around the country have attempted to block gay-straight alliances from forming, and that barring their formation or shutting down LGBT clubs is illegal according to the 1984 Equal Access Act, which protects student-initiated groups of all types.
In February, a high school in Corpus Christi, Texas, shut down all after-school clubs to prevent a gay-straight alliance from forming in a move that circumvented the Equal Access Act. After the founding student got 55,000 people to sign her petition, the school board reversed its decision, allowing the club to form. A school in New Mexico recently considered the same move.
LGBT groups are lauding the move. Carolyn Laub, executive director of the Gay-Straight Alliance Network, says the letter "validates the importance of gay-straight alliance clubs."
"It signals that the [Obama] administration and the Secretary of Education seethe value in gay-straight alliance clubs," she says. "Our hope is that it will send a really clear message to any administrator who is trying to ban all clubs to stop gay-straight alliance clubs."
High-profile instances of LGBT bullying that led to suicide have made bullying a major national issue. Last fall, Tyler Clementi, then a freshman at Rutgers University, killed himself after his roommate broadcast video on the Internet of Clementi having sex with another man.
Duncan wrote that the Department of Education would issue legal guidelines explaining the Equal Access Act so schools could "ensure that all students, including LGBT and gender nonconforming students, have a safe place to learn, meet, share experiences, and discuss matters that are important to them."
Schools do not need to endorse LGBT-friendly clubs, but they must give all student groups equal meeting spaces and resources. Duncan wrote that the Equal Access Act's requirements are "a bare legal minimum," and encouraged districts to "go beyond what the law requires in order to increase students' sense of belonging."
Laub, of the Gay-Straight Alliance Network, says that these clubs complement other policies in making school a safe environment for LGBT students: Bullied students need to know where to get support, and they need to know they are protected against bullying under school policy. Laub feels schools can help students feel welcome by including LGBT issues in curricula, especially in history, and that teachers should be trained to intervene when they witness bullying.