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School Battleground


Two weeks ago, hundreds of high school students marched in the State Capitol in Utah to protest the Salt Lake City school board's ban on extracurricular clubs. Usually, most of the adult world despairs of student apathy. They must have been pleased to see such motivated students.

The politicians probably would have been happier had the students been more apathetic. But the government had intruded for the worse on students' turf, and the students were deeply unhappy. Since when has the government been interested in non-academic clubs for high school students?

Once again, school has become the battleground for the question of the separation of church and state. First there were debates about evolution and creationism, and then there were arguments about prayer in school and moments of silence. Now, the Salt Lake City Board of Education has initiated the ban because its members are incensed by the idea of a gay-straight student alliance at East High School.

Under the Federal Equal Access Act, the school cannot discriminate against a club on the basis of its beliefs. The 70-percent Mormon community, represented by the school board, condemns homosexual acts. Rather than allow one club that disagrees with the beliefs of the majority, the school board has banned them all.

Ironically, the same Federal Equal Access Act causing so much trouble for the school board was used to allow Bible study clubs on school grounds. However, since the school board agrees with the ideology behind Bible study clubs, it of course finds no fault with them. The whole point of the Federal Equal Access Act was that schools could not discriminate against clubs based on ideology. Since the only reason the school board is opposed to the gay-straight alliance is because of its religious beliefs, it cannot stop the formation of the club. But the state legislature is working on a way around that.

If the school board truly wants to fight a gay-straight student alliance, it should speak out against it, not ban it. It should promote a discussion, not close off the topic without debate. After all, this is a high school. It is supposed to be preparing its students for adulthood and responsibilities in the real world. How can it succeed in its goal if it keeps taking away more and more of the students' power to decide for themselves?

What kind of example is this school board setting? We shouldn't condone abandoning the the federal government simply because we don't agree with everyone in it. We don't condone using the same law to both support a cause and then abandon it when others with different beliefs use it also. But the school board feels it can abandon all its students for a time because there are a few whose ideas they dispute. And its members feel they can shut up and shut down all the students whose beliefs they do not share.

It is the students who have the right idea. They have exercised their rights to influence government. They are using their abilities to speak out against what they see as wrong. The school board could easily follow their example by bringing its qualms into the open.

But the students already had forfeited their rights to free speech when they walked into a school. When the Supreme Court decided in the last decade that a school could censor student newspapers, it determined that schools were not to be grounds for free expression. Schools are the learning grounds for generations of students and should be the grounds of free discussion, and yet more and more obstacles are placed in the path of discussion.

It is not fair that schools should end up as the battleground for every political campaign. In a time when Americans despair of ways to keep students in school, to raise falling test scores and battle drugs, alcohol and teenage pregnancy, it is indeed a luxury to be able to treat teenagers as pawns in a church and state battle. Most schools are too worried about increasing class sizes and decrepit buildings to do that. But in Utah, they have the time and the power to wage a battle.

Utah is only following the federal government's lead. If the federal government could shut down for more than a week because politicians were battling over the budget, then likewise all the extracurricular activities in three Utah high schools can easily be abandoned for a few years while this situation is debated. But the school board is playing with people's lives and educations.

The Salt Lake City school board needs to handle this situation in a more adult manner. By allowing enough freedom for the students to make their own decisions, the school would be fulfilling its actual purpose: to instill responsibility in students so they can handle the adult world.

Tanya Dutta's column appears on alternate Mondays.

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