It took more than two years for supporters to form a Gay Straight Alliance at A.L. Stanback Middle School in Hillsborough—and just a few months to see it eliminated under curious circumstances.
Past and present staff say Principal Gloria Jones told them that she was heeding a new system-wide policy from Orange County Schools when she barred non-academic clubs such as the GSA from meeting during school hours this academic year.
Supporters say the move effectively squashed the controversial group—which provides support and counseling for LGBT students—after just four meetings last spring.
But, in separate interviews, Orange Board of Education Chairman Stephen Halkiotis and Interim Superintendent Del Burns said, despite what Jones may have told her staff, no such policy exists at the system level.
"I've seen every policy we have, and that's not one of them," Burns said. "I have questions."
"If this is true, I'd be very disappointed," Halkiotis said. "It has a very bad taste to it. It doesn't look good."
On Tuesday, Jones denied misleading staff at the school, saying the choice to alter club policy at A.L. Stanback was a "school-based decision."
"A decision was made based on the needs of our school," Jones said, adding that the move was unrelated to the GSA.
But multiple sources said Jones told Stanback faculty that school system administrators believed the 20-minute weekly club sessions were cutting into instructional time.
Additionally, Elizabeth Vallero, the school's guidance counselor and last year's GSA faculty adviser, said Jones told her the school's GSA controversy prompted the overhaul from the school system's central office, a point Burns denied.
The policy change occurred after teachers said Jones' administration delayed the group's launch for more than two years, as detailed in an in-depth INDY report in June.
Vallero said the school's new policy seems to block the group from meeting while still heeding federal law. That requires publicly funded schools to approve a GSA if the school permits any other student groups.
"The kids expressed a need for this," said Vallero. "And to create a reason to take this away now, it's awfully convenient."
Multiple sources, some of whom requested confidentiality to protect their jobs, said Jones announced the new rules near the end of the 2013–2014 school year, just weeks after the principal yielded to long-running requests from students and teachers to accept the nationally backed organization.
Stanback's GSA was the first of its kind at the middle-school level in Orange County Schools.
"It felt like we won the battle and lost the war," said one GSA supporter who asked not to be named because of fear of reprisal.
Jones, however, said she does not oppose the GSA. "My job is to support all students, to educate all students," she said. "What we have to do, that is what we need to do."
School staff members who openly backed the GSA say Jones' administration appeared to punish them by giving them low marks for ethics during last spring's performance evaluations. These annual reports might be key for the teachers in future job searches.
At least one teacher, who did not wish to be identified, was accused of "proselytizing" for the group. Another, former science teacher Michael Lester, says Jones accused him of "insubordination" because he spoke to the school's student body president about the GSA; he also argued for the club's formation in clashes with administration. Lester said that he was told he did "nothing positive" for the group in his GSA support.
"It was pretty insulting," said Lester, who left Stanback for Gravelly Hill Middle School, also in the Orange County system. "Ethics are important to me really, so I couldn't work there again."
Vallero added that the school policy allows clubs to meet outside of school hours, but she said that's not a realistic expectation for teachers and students limited by time or transportation. Under that arrangement, teachers would be forced to advise the groups without pay.
"The whole lack of clubs is a really sad situation," Vallero said. "All clubs are really enriching to students and they're going to miss out on that."
GSAs are frequently targeted by socially conservative groups that label it a "sex-based" club, although federal courts have defended their right to meet. National research indicates LGBT students miss class less often and make better grades in schools with a GSA.
Still, critics say middle-school children are too young to join a GSA, despite a 2008 report from the American Psychological Association that noted LGBT youths in middle school could be even more vulnerable to anti-gay bullying than their high school peers. Five known GSAs serve middle-school kids in the Triangle: Two in Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools, one in Wake County schools and one at Carolina Friends School, a private Quaker school in Durham.
Burns said school board members will soon consider a system-wide policy for club startups, although no draft has been written at this time.
In the INDY report in June, Halkiotis and then-school board Chairwoman Donna Coffey criticized school leadership for impeding the GSA launch. This week, neither could offer an explanation for this year's school policy change at Stanback, although they said decisions about clubs are typically left to school administration.
However, Halkiotis said the principal is ultimately accountable to the superintendent and the superintendent reports to the school board.
"It just doesn't look good in this day and age of worldwide communication," he said. "People need to be thinking really carefully about what they're saying and doing because it could come back to haunt them."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Gay-straight alliance stonewalled."