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High school students and parents debate gay-straight, diversity club


January 9, 2003
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
By Greg Jonsson

Tears fell and some heated debates broke out during a two-hour forum called by University City residents concerned about a gay-straight alliance and diversity club formed at the city's high school earlier this year.

"I love all people," said Lyn Herndon, father of a student at the school. "But to have the school sanction a club on sexual preference for minors is ridiculous."

The Gay Straight Alliance and Diversity Awareness club was formed at the school as a joint venture between a student who wanted to start a gay-straight alliance club and a student who wanted to launch a diversity club. Such clubs exist in hundreds of schools nationwide and at a handful of schools in the St. Louis area. About 80 students signed on, with the mission to work against discrimination.

The students who founded the club explained it "stands for tolerance, acceptance and equality for people or all identities."

But some parents and citizens have a problem with the club. Some want the name changed to not refer to sexuality and others want it out of the school entirely.

"The club is fine," said Deborah Brown. "(But) take the club somewhere else. I can't go for it in the classroom."

Members of the club, however, say it serves an important purpose at the school in promoting diversity and tolerance, and doesn't promote sex of any kind.

"This club is really important to me," said a teary-eyed Jasmine McNeely, 17. "It's not just 'the gay club.' We talk about a lot of
things."

The meeting was in the gym of Pershing Elementary School, 6761 Bartmer Avenue. Several students left it crying.

Bob Eskridge, a University City resident with plans to run for the school board, called the meeting. He said AIDS is destroying black families and that the club doesn't belong in the school.

"We love you," he said in his opening remarks. "(But) you're guaranteed to die."

He also said gay and lesbian people were involved in "deviant behavior." Some of his remarks inspired strong reaction from parents, children, teachers and residents present.

"How dare you stand at that podium and tell my children they're going to die," said a teary-eyed Teri Bennett-Tierney, Jasmine's mother.

Some complained that the postcards Eskridge sent announcing the meeting went to a select group of parents and gave a misleading name for the club. Others said the tone of the postcard was offensive.

The forum, an unofficial gathering of some concerned residents, took place at the same time as a parent-teacher organization meeting at a different location.

Eskridge said he understands the law protects the students' right to have the club.

"We would wish that they'd change the name," he said. "No one's trying to exclude anybody."

Eskridge also complained that the school doesn't teach enough African and African-American history and educators should focus on that, not the club. Some parents said the school's curriculum has nothing to do with any student club.

"Bless the students for doing this," said Diane Elze, an assistant professor in Washington University's George Warren Brown School of Social Work. She's an adviser to Growing American Youth, a social and support organization for gay, lesbian and transgender teenagers and young adults.

Reporter Greg Jonsson
E-mail: gjonsson@post-dispatch.com
Phone: 314-340-8253



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