ELYRIA — The creation of a gay and straight group for students at Elyria High School has outraged a couple of longtime supporters who are now encouraging their friends to reject a must-needed renewal levy on the May ballot.
“I have supported everything for this school, this district, but I will not vote for a system that supports having a sex club in the school,” said Elyria parent Chris Sito, who is a board member for Elyria Little League East and whose children attend the school. “As long as the district supports this, I will make it known how I feel, will vote accordingly and will let others know they should do the same.”
The club, named “Allies,” allows students to “come together in an accepting and open environment intentionally designed to discuss topics directly related to both the gay and straight communities,” according to its announcement.
Started in recent weeks, it held its first meeting Wednesday and was attended by 27 students, said Superintendent Paul Rigda.
Prior to forming, it followed all school rules for a new student club including adopting rules, responsibilities and finding volunteer teacher advisers. The group also has a guidance counselor at the ready to talk to members about more sensitive issues.
“And, from what I’m hearing, students are talking among themselves and more students wish they would have attended the meeting,” he said. “When the kids first asked if they could organize this group, we were very concerned that it might incite bullying from fellow classmates. But we haven’t heard a thing from the kids.”
Typically, when students ask to create a club tied to sexual orientation, there is such pushback from school officials that the American Civil Liberties Union is called in to champion the students’ legal right to assemble.
“We are usually the ones telling people about federal law and letting them know there is nothing bad about telling students to treat each other with respect and tolerance,” said Nick Worner, spokesman for the ACLU of Ohio. “I applaud a district that does that without us stepping in.”
Worner, who learned of the Elyria High club when contacted by a reporter, said regardless of the district’s moral convictions about supporting the club, legally it must embrace Allies.
“They don’t have a choice,” he said. “They have to follow federal law. If students in the school can form extracurricular clubs for anything else, be it Spanish, computers or science, then the students can also form a gay-straight alliance. This goes beyond the district’s or one administrator’s personal opinion on tolerance. Schools cannot pick and choose what clubs they want to accept or deny.”
Sito said there are ways around promoting and endorsing such a group.
His Facebook profile picture is a banner that reads “Vote No on Issue 2.” His personal page, which is open to the public, is full of comments urging parents to stand up against the district.
“You people in Elyria need to start paying attention to what is being promoted in your school system,” he said in a post.
“Elyria High has now defined itself,” read another post. “It is now a system that has chosen to side with a very belligerent group of people who want their behavior “accepted” as “normal”.”
In that conversation, Bob DuPont, a longtime supporter of the district who has even co-sponsored a crowdfunding campaign to raise money to renovate the Elyria football stadium, said he opposes the group as well.
When reached Friday, he said he did not want to elaborate on his stance.
“People know how I feel, and I’ve put my opinion out there,” he said. “I don’t want to say anything more than what I put on Facebook.”
DuPont has been vocal on the social media site with his opinion that the club is promoting sex.
He has pledged to pull his yes vote for the district’s upcoming renewal issue on the May ballot.
The levy, which does not cost residents any more money, raises $12 million annually for the district.
“They just lost a lot of yes votes, including mine,” he posted on a thread discussing the club’s creation. “I was putting a sign in my yard not now!”
Elyria High Principal Tom Jama said the school has myriad different clubs for the more than 2,000 students in the school.
There is a Christian prayer group, French and Spanish clubs and even a group for students interested in anime — Japanese cartoons.
“Our goal is to get as many kids as possible involved in clubs or organization that fit their interests or needs,” he said. “When kids are involved in an organization, it helps them academically, gives them a sense of school spirit and pride, gets them involved in their school and community and helps build partnerships with other students.”
Despite claims by Sito that Allies is a sex group geared toward “five or six sexual situations or choices,” Jama said students do not talk about sex, and are not encouraged to have sex or experiment with sex.
“Absolutely not,” he said. “It’s about bringing all students together regardless of their sexual identity. It’s a club that treats every student as a human and equal and encourages students to be accepting of others.”
Elyria High has often been described by school officials as a place where every student can find their place. Rigda said legally the district has to accept Allies, but for him it goes beyond just following the law.
“We are all about ensuring each child reaches his or her full potential — nowhere does it say if they agree with us or agree with our personal philosophy,” Rigda said.
Evelyn France, vice president of the Elyria school board, said the issue is one of life and death for her.
“I will not read another obituary from a child who does not feel accepted and sees suicide as their only way out,” she said.
According to a fact sheet from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, negative attitudes toward gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people put LGBT youth at increased risk for experiences with violence compared with other students. Violence can include behaviors such as bullying, teasing, harassment, physical assault and suicide.
The CDC encourages school districts to promote a positive school climate.
“For example, a study, found that, in schools with LGB support groups (such as gay-straight alliances), LGB students were less likely to experience threats of violence, miss school because they felt unsafe, or attempt suicide than those students in schools without LGB support groups,” said the CDC.
France said she plans to attend future Allies meeting as a representative of the school board.
“We are 100 percent behind the kids,” she said. “We want to show them we stand for tolerance, acceptance and support for all students.”
If the blowback on the district results in the renewal levy failures, both Rigda and France said they will not see it as a referendum on the district.
“I’m always disappointed when a levy fails, but if this levy fails because of something like this I would be disappointed for a whole other reason,” Rigda said. “It would not be a school issue. It would speak to a larger more pressing community issue.”
Sito, who also serves as a player agent for the Elyria Softball Organization, said he understands he could influence a very important levy issue for the district. Still, he stands behind his right to vote no.
“They have stepped way over the line with this one,” he said. “I 100 percent want it to go away so I can continue to support our district.”
Rigda said he will not be distracted from the levy campaign. Issue 2 is a renewal that will result in no additional tax dollars coming from residents.
“Anytime you have what we call organized opposition that concerns us,” he said. “But we have to stand firm on things like this. We are protecting the rights of our students, all of our students. Every single one needs to know they are not invisible.”