BRIGHAM CITY -- A "record crowd" at the Box Elder School District's board meeting Wednesday night was rewarded with the news it wanted to hear: The school board voted 5 to 1 to approve a new club policy that will continue to allow noncurricular clubs, and will likely result in approval for a proposed Gay-Straight Alliance at Box Elder High School.
About 90 people squeezed into the boardroom, requiring the need for more chairs, then for late arrivals to stand.
The big turnout was largely the result of a controversy sparked at the October board meeting when the district was scheduled to vote on a new policy to potentially ban all clubs except those related directly to curriculum.
That agenda item came up a day after student Gloria Hammond turned in a formal application to start a Gay-Straight Alliance .
The perception among many members and allies of the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) community, and among civil rights advocates, was that the district was considering banning all noncurricular clubs solely so it could stop the proposed GSA. The vote was tabled in October.
BESD Superintendent Ronald Wolff said the policy consideration and the GSA application were not related, and that the board has been revising and updating various district policies since January.
He said the reasons that favor banning clubs not based on curriculum include lightening the load of teacher/sponsors, decreasing use of school facilities and related costs, and cutting district liability for students who might be injured during club activities.
Wolff said Wednesday the liability issue was tied mostly to Bear River High School's Rodeo Club, one of the existing noncurricular clubs that would have been cut had the vote gone differently.
The school board has six voting members and a nonvoti ng student member. The lone "no" vote came from Board President Bryan Smith.
Those in the audience applauded and cheered the board's decision to keep noncurricular clubs and to move forward with pending and future applications.
Wolff said he will likely be the one to review club applications and will work with student applicants to help them meet state requirements for clubs. Once all requirements are satisfied, club approval will be automatic and not based on his own moral judgments or values, Wolff said.
Sharon Vaughn, mother of Gloria and Bernadine Hammond, 17 and 15, who came up with the idea for a GSA at Box Elder High, said Wolff previously told her he was against the proposed banning of district non-curricular clubs because the policy also banned service clubs..
Board member Nancy Kennedy, who proposed the vote to accept the inclusive proposal, was careful to say that clubs with names that promote sexuality will not be allowed. Wolff repeated that condition.
"I'm happy," Vaughn said. "So maybe they'll make the group change its name, even though it's called the Gay-Straight Alliance in every other Utah school. Who cares?"
During the public participation portion of the meeting, more than 15 audience members voiced their opinions, with the majority being about the value of all clubs, but especially the proposed Gay-Straight Alliance.
Many echoed thoughts they had shared Tuesday night at an OUTreach Resource Center community council meeting.
One young man who had attended Box Elder High School told the board and audience that he had been bullied for being gay, and he had tried to commit suicide. He spent a week in a coma, he said. He said a GSA would educate students and fulfill a need in the community.
Laurie Eccleston, a board member of PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays), said about 5 percent of students know or will later determine they are gay. That's one in 20, she said, and on average, more than one per classroom.
Of gay students, eight out of 10 are harassed, she said, and two out of 10 are physically assaulted. Students being bullied tend to miss more school, have a lower grade-point average and are less likely to pursue a college degree.
Eccleston said, according to GSA research, the club is able to decrease teen members' suicides by half.
James Major, father of two boys, said he had to pull his older son out of school because of bullying, something his younger son still endured.
"You guys have failed to protect my family," he said. "There should be fairness for all, and not just who you choose."
Others talked about Box Elder County's high suicide rate, the highest in the state according to health department data. A former cemetery worker talked about her sadness over having to bury so many local teens.
Wolff said in the event that he rejects a club, the club can appeal to the school board, but a club won't be rejected if all application requirements are met.
Contact reporter Nancy Van Valkenburg at 801-625-4275 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @S_ENancyVanV.