The American Civil Liberties Union is asking a federal judge to order the McKeesport Area School District to allow a Black Student Union to advertise its meetings and meet on school property outside of school hours.
Citing federal law and the district’s own policies --- as well as list of other student clubs that have been sanctioned by the school district --- the ACLU of Pennsylvania on Wednesday asked a federal judge to find the district in violation of both the First Amendment and the federal Equal Access Act, a 1984 law.
The filing, made on behalf of 11 students at the high school, names the district and Superintendent Mark Holtzman Jr., and asks the court to order McKeesport Area School District to provide the Black Student Union with “the same access to school facilities as other non-curricular student clubs.”
The case has been assigned to federal District Judge Marilyn J. Horan. No hearing has yet been scheduled.
At last month’s board meeting, Holtzman said the district was moving toward creation of a student union that would include representation from any race.
But in the court filing, ACLU attorneys Vic Walczak and Sara Rose said that’s not what the students they represent have asked for.
“The McKeesport Student Union is not a substitute for plaintiffs’ club, which is called the McKeesport Black Student Union and already has a school advisor and mission statement,” the attorneys wrote.
Holtzman “would prefer that the group be called the McKeesport Student Union and work on creating fun activities for the student body,” the attorneys wrote, but “the superintendent’s preferences are not controlling.”
School Board President Joe Lopretto and Board Vice President Mary Jane Keller issued a statement to KDKA-TV backing Holtzman and other district administrators.
“It is disheartening that the political aspirations of one individual (have) set in motion a case that can turn back time on decades of progression, not only in our schools, but in our country,” Lopretto and Keller told the TV station.
The “individual” in question is former McKeesport City Councilwoman V. Fawn Walker-Montgomery, whose daughter is one of the 11 plaintiffs being represented by the ACLU.
Walker-Montgomery, who ran for state representative as a Republican last year, has announced plans to run as an independent against incumbent McKeesport Mayor Michael Cherepko this fall.
In their joint statement, Lopretto and Keller argue that Holtzman and other administrators, including Assistant Superintendent Tia Wanzo, attempted to resolve the dispute “without cooperation from the ACLU.”
“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,” Lopretto and Keller said.
“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,” Lopretto and Keller said.
Since that time, the school directors said, “information surrounding this process has been twisted and released onto social media to create anger and frustration that isn’t warranted.”
Lopretto and Keller accuse the ACLU of forcing the district to “waste valuable educational resources that should be allocated for our students’ success.”
The ACLU's filing paints a different picture. Walczak and Rose argue that district administrators have interfered in meetings to discuss the creation of a student union, and that black students have felt “intimidated and outnumbered.”
According to the filing, the students who wanted a Black Student Union had already recruited an advisor and were receiving organizational help from college-age students at Penn State Greater Allegheny.
But in January, the ACLU filing alleges, Holtzman told the McKeesport students they could not advertise or meet on school property.
The ACLU argues that violates the students' First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, as well as the federal Equal Access Act. That law was passed by Congress in 1984 in part to allow student-led Christian groups to hold Bible study sessions on public school property outside of school hours.
Because McKeesport Area School District allows other non-academic groups to meet on school property outside of school hours --- including the Future Business Leaders of America, Students Against Destructive Decisions, Future Nurses Club and Chess Club, the ACLU attorneys argue, “the Equal Access Act and First Amendment compel it to allow all non-curriculum-related student groups uniform access to school facilities.”
The filing also mentions two incidents that the ACLU argues led to the creation of the Black Student Union, including an occasion in October 2018 when students allege that a white teacher at Founders Hall Middle School told pupils that “black people benefited from being property during slavery.”
Besides requiring the district to sanction the Black Student Union, the attorneys also want a ruling from Horan that Holtzman and the district have violated the Equal Access Act and the First Amendment. They seek damages of $1, plus attorneys' fees.
Jason Togyer is editor of Tube City Almanac and volunteer executive director of Tube City Community Media Inc. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Originally published April 11, 2019.