The New York Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit today in federal court against the Buffalo City School District and principal Crystal Boling-Barton for routinely, openly and systematically discriminating against LGBTQ students at McKinley High School. The lawsuit specifically challenges the principal’s repeated, years-long denial of attempts to form a Gay-Straight-Alliance at McKinley and the school district’s ongoing refusal to intercede. The suit also describes a history of harmful and unlawful anti-LGBTQ policies at the school.
“Schools should encourage kids who try to make the learning environment more inclusive for other students,” said NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman. “But LGBTQ students at McKinley have met only discouragement, inaction and homophobia from the school and district charged with supporting them. This goes against everything New York stands for.”
“I care a lot about the school, that’s why it’s so disappointing how it’s acted toward LGBTQ students,” said Byshop Elliott, 18, the plaintiff in the case and a junior at McKinley. “Everyone should have a chance to feel included and excited about high school, including LGBTQ students. I wish this wasn’t still an issue today but it is.”
At McKinley, announcements over the loudspeaker have warned students that they are not allowed to bring a same-sex date to prom and that “couples” tickets are only for opposite-sex couples. At school dances, if a girl dares to dance with her girlfriend, the principal has separated them and warned them to stay apart or face punishment. This pattern of overt discrimination has gone on for years. Amidst this climate of blatant, public bigotry, dozens of students have banded together in an attempt to create a Gay-Straight-Alliance, an after-school club where students can provide social, emotional and educational support for one another.
A GSA can be a lifeline for students who face rejection, harassment or violence based on their LGBTQ status, the NYCLU lawsuit says. A recent national survey confirms that students in schools with a GSA are significantly less likely to feel unsafe, victimized or harassed based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. It is a violation of the federal Equal Access Act, as well as the First Amendment, to prohibit students from forming a GSA if other non-curricular clubs are allowed, as they are at McKinley.
“This lawsuit should serve as a clear warning to schools and districts around New York, and around the country, that rolling back LGBTQ protections will not be tolerated,” said NYCLU Staff Attorney Bobby Hodgson, lead counsel in the case. “We are committed to making sure schools are safe, inclusive places where all students’ rights are respected.”
In March, Byshop collected 136 signatures from classmates and staff in support of forming the GSA. But the club remains unapproved, and the latest application, submitted at the beginning of the school year, has been ignored.
“It’s hard enough to deal with the negative attitudes of other students, but much harder when your school administration also makes you feel unwelcome,” said Destinee, 17, a McKinley student who identifies as LGBTQ. “All we want is a place where LGBTQ students and allies can support each other and be a positive example for the rest of the school."
Students at McKinley see the GSA as an opportunity to bring together their classmates, create a welcoming place for those who regularly face discrimination because of their sexual orientation or gender identity or expression, and improve the climate at the school for all students. A GSA can have a positive effect in any school, but it is particularly crucial in a place like McKinley, where school-sponsored discrimination has singled out LGBTQ students for years. A broad coalition of students and staff at the school recognize what a GSA would mean at McKinley; according to the lawsuit, a student recently confided to a staff member that “we really need that here.” Students have applied or attempted to apply to form a GSA since at least the 2014-2015 school year, and the NYCLU believes students and staff were also trying to start a GSA for several years prior. Each year, the proposal is either ignored or outright rejected by Boling-Barton.
During the 2014-2015 school year, according to the lawsuit, students interested in forming a GSA along with a faculty sponsor submitted an application to Boling-Barton, who has ultimate authority within the school to approve new clubs. But Boling-Barton never responded to their application in writing. When the faculty sponsor posted signs around the school advertising an initial meeting for students interested in joining the GSA, Boling-Barton told the faculty sponsor that the group’s application had been denied.
During the next school year, in the spring of 2016, Byshop collected close to thirty students’ signatures in support of forming a GSA and also secured a faculty sponsor. When he asked an assistant principal how to submit an application for the group, she told him it was too late in the school year to form a club and that Boling-Barton would deny it. But another application to form a different student club submitted around the same time was approved, and that group was allowed to begin meetings that same school year.
The situation at McKinley High School clearly violates Buffalo City School District policies that promise wide-ranging protections for LGBTQ students. Indeed, recently the district publicly congratulated itself for its strong commitment to LGBTQ rights, with one official stating that “Buffalo should be proud that every student in our district is protected from discrimination in all its forms.” That statement does not appear to apply at McKinley, where the district has refused to lift a finger to enforce those protections. In August 2016, the NYCLU sent the school district a detailed account of Boling-Barton’s actions and demanded that the district ensure the approval of the GSA during the 2016-2017 school year. In over eight months, the district has done nothing.
The discrimination documented in the lawsuit is not isolated to one school in Buffalo. The NYCLU has received numerous reports of unlawful mistreatment of LGBTQ students at schools across the state. While bad actors may feel emboldened by indications from the Trump administration that it will abandon Obama-era federal efforts to protect LGBTQ children—in February, for example, the Department of Education and the Department of Justice rescinded guidance regarding the rights of transgender students in schools—the law remains clear that this type of discrimination is absolutely indefensible.
“It’s unacceptable that LGBTQ students in Buffalo today are still waiting for their right to participate in a GSA and enjoy the benefits of a more inclusive school environment,” said John Curr III, NYCLU Western Regional Office Chapter Director. “Western New York and the rest of the state must understand that this intolerance is completely unacceptable and illegal.”
The lawsuit asks the court to order the district to approve the GSA and to ensure that its members are immediately permitted to begin meeting at McKinley.
Apart from Hodgson and Curr, NYCLU staff who worked on the lawsuit include Erin Beth Harrist, Chris Dunn, Kristen Burzynski and Andrea Barrientos.