IRMO, S.C. — South Carolina Equality and 11 other organizations in the Community United for All Youth coalition are lauding a decision by the Lexington-Richland District 5 School Board to allow gay-straight student organizations in the schools under its jurisdiction.

Commonly referred to as gay-straight alliances, or GSAs, the organizations offer support to LGBT and straight ally students and create a safe place where they can strive to better understand themselves and others.

A firestorm of controversy ignited in May when Irmo High School Principal Eddie Walker announced his intention to resign over the GSA forming in his school. The school board told Walker he must allow the group in accordance with the federal Equal Access Act.

“The formation of this club conflicts with my professional beliefs in that we do not have other clubs at Irmo High school based on sexual orientation, sexual preference, or sexual activity,” Walker wrote. “In fact our sex education curriculum is abstinence based. I feel the formation of a Gay/Straight Alliance Club at Irmo High school implies that students joining the club will have chosen to or will choose to engage in sexual activity with members of the same sex, opposite sex, or members of both sexes.”

In response to Walker’s decision and the public flap that ensued, the school board announced it would consider changing the policy that regulates GSAs and other non-curricular clubs. Four options were proposed: abolishing the GSA entirely; classifying clubs as curricular and non-curricular with severe restrictions on non-curricular clubs; banning all non-curricular clubs including the GSA; or requiring specific “opt in” permission slips for any student to join any club including the GSA.

In the end, the board voted unanimously on June 23 to pass a policy allowing the GSA that also included an opt-out provision, requiring parents to return a form at the beginning of each year outlining the various clubs their children cannot join.

South Carolina Equality said the new policy isn’t perfect, but it is “dramatically better” than the other options presented by the board.

South Carolina Equality Executive Director Ray Drew said, “Without the thousands of hours devoted to this issue by our community, most certainly a bad policy would have been passed that would have become the standard for school districts across the state.

“That we were able to force the school district to pass a dramatically better policy is cause for celebration, but our mood is dampened by the sure and certain knowledge that some GLBT students will not have access to this club at a critical point in their lives.”

Drew’s concerns over the parental opt-out provision were echoed by Community United for All Youth, through a statement from Elke Kennedy of Sean’s Last Wish.

“While parents are not required to return the ‘opt-out’ forms, this option still subjects LGBT students and their straight allies who wish to join the GSA to a level of monitoring that will surely discourage participation by those students who need the support of a GSA the most,” the statement charged.

Member organizations of Community United for All Youth include Alliance For Full Acceptance, Faith In America, Harriet Hancock Community Center, Palmetto Umoja, PFLAG-Columbia, Sean’s Last Wish, the South Carolina Pride Movement, South Carolina Progressive Network and TransCarolina.

In full, the new policy requires students creating non-curricular clubs to request permission to form them at the beginning of the school year. After Sept. 15, no new clubs can be established. The principal cannot deny the formation of any group based on its purpose or the content of its meeting, but can stop it from forming if he or she feels the group will “materially or substantially interfere with the orderly conduct of educational activities within the school.”

“Our marching orders are clear,” Drew said. “We have a moral imperative to work on this issue until every GLBT student has access to a safe environment for learning.”

Matt Comer

Matt Comer previously served as editor from October 2007 through August 2015 and as a staff writer afterward in 2016.