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Controversy erupts over LGBTQ club in Florence-Carlton school district

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Protesters are expected to turn out in force at Tuesday's Florence-Carlton school board meeting over middle school student participation in a club called the Gay-Straight Alliance.

A group called Stand Together for Freedom claims the club is “heavily recruiting and indoctrinating” students without their parents’ knowledge. Attendance at the May meeting flowed out the door and into the parking lot.

The school district, anticipating heavy turnout, has moved Tuesday's meeting from the district offices to the gymnasium. It noted on the agenda that no firearms — including concealed carry — will be permitted.

The meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. and will also be accessible on Zoom. The agenda will include the second reading of a policy requiring parental permission for students to participate in formal clubs — groups that use the school’s name, facilities, logo or team name and raise and deposit funds. Informal clubs, like the Gay-Straight Alliance, would not require permission from parents.

Brian Rayburn, the district’s superintendent, said that the board policy is not meant to target one club and will impact all groups.

“The issue at hand is about parent permission or parent notification for all formal and informal groups, it’s not specific to one group at all,” Rayburn said. “The school recognizes that if you have one group, you have all groups.”

The policy notes that the administration is authorized to notify parents of all formal and informal groups. Rayburn said that this does not mean parents would be notified when a student joins a club.

“What it means is we tell the parents these are the things that happen during non-instructional times that your kid has access to,” Rayburn said. "Notification does not mean that we’re going to out the kids to their parents.”

Nancy Dunne Byington of Missoula, who has relatives from the Florence school system, wrote Rayburn urging the district to reject requiring permission slips for the protection of the students involved.

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"I hope my neighbors retain their humanity, compassion and common sense through this process of weeding out hatred and bigotry that would otherwise harm our children," Byington wrote in a letter to the editor of the Missoulian.

Stand Together for Freedom could not be reached for comment. The group, in a Facebook post, encouraged people to attend May’s board meeting to protest the “secret gay and lesbian club” and said that the meeting would “be a dog fight.” 

The Bitterroot Star reported that the draft policy was approved in a 3-2 vote in its first reading at the May meeting.

Kim Bauer, the school board chair, said she would not comment on the matter ahead of Tuesday's second reading of the policy.

She did say in an email to the Missoulian that she hopes Tuesday's meeting allows “the outpouring overwhelming kindness and inclusiveness that the Florence community does embrace and how we will not tolerate the harassment or hatred that is attempting to break in.”

The Gay-Straight Alliance, also known as the Gender and Sexuality Alliance, is a nationwide network of student-run organizations that offer LGBTQ and allied youth an opportunity to come together and organize around social issues related to racial, gender and educational justice. The middle school's group is not affiliated with the national GSA network, according to Rayburn.

Rayburn said that because the group is considered informal, no staff member is paid to supervise the club. The teacher is also not teaching or instructing the group, and is volunteering her time.


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