Wisconsin: Grantsburg district sued over formation of LGBTQ club for online charter school

The ACLU of Wisconsin has filed a complaint with the Grantsburg School District alleging the principal of the district’s online charter school repeatedly blocked student and staff attempts to form a club for LGBTQ students and allies.

The complaint against iForward, a statewide online school that serves 1,200 students across Wisconsin in grades K-12, outlines actions by Principal Constance Quade to block students from forming the club, including the suspension of a sixth grade student who identifies as LGBTQ after they distributed materials about the club through online boards and classrooms shared by their peers.

According to the ACLU complaint, filed with the Grantsburg School District, which is located in northwestern Wisconsin:

• Students and several teachers at iForward have requested that the school form the club since at least September 2019. Teachers also expressed willingness to serve as advisors for the club. Quade has persistently rejected requests by students and teachers to form the club.

• Quade has said the school does not allow student-initiated clubs as her reason for denying its formation. However, since at least September 2019, teachers have asked that the school establish a club for LGBTQ students and allies, which means Quade’s designation of the club as “student-initiated” is not accurate.

• Quade has also said that the school does not allow the formation of non-academic clubs. However, the school’s website lists many clubs that do not have curricular tie-ins, including Dungeons and Dragons Club, Pirate’s Cove, Pet Club, Horse Club, CoderZ League Pro, Travel Club, Parenting Club, Baking Club and eSports Club.

In December 2020, before their suspension, the student began communicating with their peers about forming a club for LGBTQ students and allies, and reached out to Quade for permission to form the club, which was rejected on the grounds that the club was not academic based. The student continued to use school communication technology to talk with their peers about forming the club, which led to their one-day suspension in February.

According to the federal Equal Access Act, passed in 1984, public schools can be blocked from receiving federal funding if they deny students from forming clubs or conducting meetings because of “religious, political, philosophical, or other content of the speech at such meetings.”

“Schools do have some leeway as far as blocking clubs,” said Brian Juchems, one of the co-executive directors at GSAFE, an organization that supports LGBTQ students in schools across Wisconsin. “Schools have, for years, tried to cut this narrow path and determine what is or isn’t an academic club and school district after school district have lost that claim in court.”

Juchems first became aware of the situation at iForward in early 2021 when a member of the iForward community reached out to him to let him know the school’s administration was trying to block student efforts to form a club for LGBTQ students and allies.

“It seems really clear that iForward, by saying ‘You can’t organize this club’ or ‘You can’t call it a GSA’ or ‘You can’t focus on LGBTQ topics’ is violating the Equal Access Act,” he said.

Juchems sent an email in February to Quade and the superintendent of the Grantsburg School District, which houses the online charter school, to outline the law and past court cases. Weeks passed and he didn’t receive a reply so he followed up with a certified letter in March. As of the beginning of May, he hadn’t heard from the principal or district administration, which he said was unusual.

A district spokesperson said the district is “working to resolve this matter,” but otherwise declined to comment, citing the district’s obligation to protect student confidentiality, which the student has waived according to the ACLU.

“Ultimately it’s really silly and it seems against the efforts of education to actively block something that’s about helping students belong, feel connected to school, develop leadership skills,” Juchems said. “It could lead to a lawsuit.”

Several iForward staff members came forward with concerns regarding Quade’s active role in blocking student efforts to start a club for LGBT students and allies but asked not to be identified for fear of retribution from the administration.

The episode is the second in a few months where iForward’s administration was accused by students and staff of blocking student efforts to seek support or inclusion. In February, Quade blocked student efforts to share a presentation with their peers about Black historical figures during Black History Month, according to a report by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

“These seem like two huge missteps,” Juchems said. “It’s tone deaf when LGBT youth and Black students are feeling very marginalized and attacked in the media and the world in this pandemic right now, to take active steps to block efforts to show support or provide inclusion. It just boggles my mind.”

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