Students at the Winfield High School in Putnam County, West Virginia had been lobbying to start a GSA alliance at their school for weeks. But principal Bruce McGrew, who has worked for Putnam County School District for over 20 years, blocked their efforts, saying “It’s not a subject to even discuss.”
In an interview with Charleston Gazette last week, he claimed a GSA would promote bullying.
“It would bring more problems to the issue of bullying and so forth if it were to occur,” he claimed. “Our job is to protect all kids from that.”
But not everyone agreed.
Teacher Steve Shamblin, who runs a GSA at a different high school, told the newspaper, “I get as many straight kids as gay kids, who just want to ask what they can do to help and make sure their friends aren’t bullied. It promotes tolerance at our school.”
Jennifer Meinig, executive director of West Virginia’s chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, went so far as to say denying students a GSA would be breaking federal law, citing the Equal Access Act, which states public schools must treat all extracurricular clubs fairly.
“I think that this proves how much the school needs a club like this,” Meinig said, “because it must be a hostile environment there for students if there are concerns about bullying. On top of that, it’s the legal thing to do. It’s important that these students have somewhere to go.”
So McGrew changed his argument. Rather than saying the club would promote bullying, he said there wasn’t a faculty member willing to sponsor it.
Refusing to take no for an answer, students launched a Change.org petition aimed at McGrew.
“A gay-straight alliance club (GSA) is a club that would provide support, acceptance, and a safe place for students at this school, especially members of the LGBTQ+ community,” the petition said. “The Equal Access Act (1980’s) requires public schools to treat all extracurricular clubs fairly. This club is not being treated fairly, and it should be approved.”
The petition garnered over 150 signatures and got the media’s attention. This ultimately prompted McGrew to reverse course. Within a day, he located a faculty member to oversee the group and gave the GSA the green light.
Jeff Haught, the school’s show choir director, will be the club’s sponsor.
Putnam County Schools spokeswoman Rudi Raynes told BuzzFeed News, “Everyone is entitled to their personal beliefs. I can’t speak for Mr. McGrew. We have to set aside personal beliefs and go with the law of the land. Our school district is very open to all the preferences of our students.”
We presume you meant “orientations” instead of “preferences,” Ms. Raynes but we’ll let it slide this time.
After it was announced the school would get a GSA, an update to the Change.org petition was made. It now says:
“GSA Club is a go!! … Thank you for all your support!!!”