By Kirsten Valle
EAST SPENCER -- After nearly two hours of protest, discussion and debate Monday night, the Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education banned South Rowan High School's Gay/Straight Alliance and other sexually-oriented clubs.
Board members voted 7-0 in favor of Jim Shuping's motion to ban all sexually-oriented clubs -- gay, straight or otherwise -- and to address any student's emotional issues concerning sexuality with guidance counselors.
Shuping later added to the motion -- at the recommendation of attorney Don Sayers -- that the existence of such a club would "materially and substantially interfere with the orderly conduct of educational activities in school," a clause that makes banning it legal under the federal Equal Access Act.
The decision Monday ended months of virulent debate surrounding South's Gay/Straight Alliance. Board members discussed it during their March work session -- Shuping made a motion to abolish it then -- and decided they could not legally ban it without banning all other non-curricular clubs.
Shuping added the issue to Monday's agenda, in part because of an overwhelming public outcry: Protesters gathered outside the school system's Long Street office and packed the meeting room once board members arrived.
"We've got to address this issue," he said, to applause from the crowd. "We're not in the business of teaching sex, we're in the business of educating our kids. This is Rowan County, not New York City, and I think it's time to use a little Rowan County common sense."
More than 10 people signed up to speak before the board; just two did so in favor of the Gay/Straight Alliance.
Brian Johnson, whose children will attend South Rowan, said a public high school was no place for a Gay/Straight Alliance.
"Take a stand for what you believe is right," he told the board. "If it comes down to a lawsuit, there will be help for that."
Carl Ford, who has been an active supporter of the high school, said sodomy was illegal in North Carolina, so a Gay/Straight Alliance shouldn't exist.
He also wondered why South was forced to drop its old mascot, the Rebels, when this club -- which offends more community members -- was being allowed to meet.
Other speakers, including preachers from Landis, Kannapolis and Concord, parents and grandparents, lashed out against the alliance, often to spirited applause and shouts of approval.
Two speakers, who delivered brief opinions near the end of the public comment period, were in favor of allowing the group.
"I, too, am here to speak for our children," said Mike Clawson, president of the Salisbury-Rowan chapter of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays.
Homosexual students "are like everybody else's children, and they deserve the same rights as everybody else. The bottom line is, it's the law."
The crowd booed Clawson as he left the microphone.
During their discussion of the issue, board members fought off comments from the crowd and listened intently to Sayers, who explained the Equal Access Act of 1984.
The law says that if any non-curricular club is allowed to meet, all must be, as long as they meet voluntarily, are student-initiated, not school-sponsored, and are not materially or substantially disruptive of school activities.
When board members asked South's principal, Dr. Ron Turbyfill, whether the club was disruptive, he said he did not consider it to be.
"If your measure of disruptiveness is whether or not we are able to conduct classes, it is not," he said, adding that classes have gone on every day as usual.
Kay Wright Norman said the board should define "disruptive" before adding the clause about it to their ban, but Shuping said it was up to the board to interpret that.
Other board members looked for ways around the issue that would not require them to ban all student clubs.
Dr. Jim Emerson asked Sayers if schools could have service clubs, like the Civitans, and academic clubs without allowing other non-curricular clubs, but Sayers said that would be against the law.
Kyle Huffman warned board and audience members that banning the Gay/Straight Alliance might force the board to ban other clubs.
"We will have other ramifications," he said. "We may lose some very good organizations because of this equal access law."
Board Chairman Bryce Beard said the board had a difficult decision: While it hoped to reflect the community's wishes, it also had to promote students' rights.
"We have to be for the children, and that's whoever we have that shows up at our door to receive an education," he said.
Allowing the Gay/Straight Alliance wouldn't be popular, but "at the same time, we don't want to stigmatize children," he said. " ... In reality in our community, (homosexuals) are pretty good citizens."
But the board already has policy that prohibits discrimination, so now it should focus on reflecting the community's wishes, Shuping said.
Others agreed that public schools weren't the place for sexually-oriented clubs and said banning them was worth the risk of losing other clubs.
Emerson said simply, and to more applause, "I still think sexuality is a parent-child issue."
In other business Monday night, board members:
* Swore in Superintendent Dr. Judy Grissom.
* Unanimously approved an increase in school lunch prices: Elementary prices will increase from $1.65 to $1.75; secondary prices will increase from $1.75 to $1.85; and adult prices will increase from $2.50 to $2.75 next school year.
* Unanimously approved budget amendments, received a monthly financial report and received a quarterly purchasing report.
* Received a construction update that detailed the progress being made on the school system's projects and stated that all projects are still on schedule.
Contact Kirsten Valle at 704-797-7683 or firstname.lastname@example.org.