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MCKEESPORT (KDKA) — Eleven McKeesport Area High School girls, all ninth graders but two, and their parents filed a complaint in federal court, claiming school officials will not let them form a Black Student Union.
“If a school district opens up its facilities to allow any non-curricular club — chess club, key club, glee club — then they have to allow any other students who want to form their own club to operate on the same terms and conditions,” Vic Walczak, legal director of the Pennsylvania branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, told KDKA political editor Jon Delano on Wednesday.
Walczak, who represents the students, says even race-based groups — black, white, Hispanic or Asian — can form student organizations in school as long as their clubs are open to all.
“Schools retain their ability to take steps to prevent substantial and material disruption and to prevent groups that are discriminatory, for instance, in who might attend,” Walczak said.
- RELATED STORY: Superintendent Says Students Don’t Want Black Student Union As ACLU Threatens Court Injunction
Last Friday, Superintendent Dr. Mark Holtzman said he had no problem with a Black Student Union.
“If our student body wants a Black Student Union, that’s what they’re going to get,” Holtzman said Friday.
But school board officials say students, a majority of whom were African-American, met and decided an all-inclusive McKeesport Student Union was better than one that would “cause division amongst their peers.”
“I’ll do whatever the needs are, but I want to hear from the student body,” Holtzman said Friday. “I don’t want to hear from outside individuals that are not educators in our system.”
Holtzman says “politically fueled” outside groups, including a candidate for McKeesport mayor, Fawn Walker Montgomery, who joined her daughter in this lawsuit, are behind all this.
“She’s been sending communications to my assistant and I about a Black Student Union, so it is driven by that particular individual,” Holtzman said Friday.
“It’s completely irrelevant,” said the ACLU’s Walczak.
Walczak says it doesn’t matter if outsiders are involved with the students.
“They still have the same right as long as it is directed by the students, and in this case it is,” Walczak said.
The ACLU has asked for a court order to immediately allow the students to organize their group.
No word yet on a hearing date.
A statement Joseph Lopretto, President of the McKeesport Area School District Board of Directors, and Mary Jane Keller, Vice President of the McKeesport Area School District Board of Directors, backs the superintendent:
“It is disheartening that the political aspirations of one individual has set in motion a case that can turn back time on decades of progression, not only in our schools, but in our country. As President and Vice President of the McKeesport Area School District Board of Directors, we strongly support Dr. Mark Holtzman, Dr. Wanzo, and their administrative team, that have continued to try and resolve this, without cooperation from the ACLU. Following the initial conversation with their representative, the suggestion to form an unbiased group of students to lead a discussion, was completed. Students, without any adult interference from Dr. Holtzman, or other staff members, met on this issue and determined that the need for a McKeesport Student Union was valid, but not one that would cause division amongst their peers. Those invited to attend these discussions included a majority of African American students, including the three founding students in support of the BSU creation, at the board meeting in February. Since that time, information surrounding this process has been twisted and released onto social media to create anger and frustration that isn’t warranted. We will continue to support Dr. Holtzman, Dr. Wanzo, the entire staff and student body, including those working on the success of the newly created McKeesport Student Union, as we are forced to waste valuable educational resources that should be allocated for our students’ success.”
KDKA reached out to Fawn Walker Montgomery, who is running as an Independent against incumbent McKeesport Mayor Mike Cherepko, a Democrat.
“We are so proud of the kids and truly appreciate the ACLU for their help and support,” Walker Montgomery said in an email.