“I am in a fight with my school right now because I was told that I could not have a pro-life group here at my school. So, I had to send a letter to the city board people over the schools telling them what I want to do and things like that. So, I did that and that was like a week or so ago. Do I just keep sitting here waiting or what should I do? I know that they have a lot of stuff they do but I know that when other people try to start groups it doesn’t take them this long. What should I do?”
Above is a desperate email I received from Keontai, (pictured above with Bama Students for Life President, Claire) a junior at a public high school in Alabama. Unfortunately, his situation is all too common among pro-life students in public high schools all over the nation. Since the launch of Students for Life High School, my inbox has been flooded with distressed emails from high school students who are experiencing extreme discrimination from their administration because of their pro-life views. “It’s illegal,” said one Louisiana principal. “It will cause protests,” “It will offend other students,” “It’s about separation of church and state… ” and the list goes on of other crazy excuses as to why our students are prohibited from starting pro-life groups.
Not only do administrations make outlandish, false statements regarding the “illegality” of pro-life student clubs, they have even created bureaucratic obstacles to hinder them. In Keontai’s case, he was told to write down all of the events he was planning to do so that the principal can “approve” them with the school board (which he never did.) No other student group at their school is required to have their events approved by the school board. “I’m being targeted in all kinds of ways,” said Kenotai in a frustrated text to me. No matter what he did, the school shut down his plans to start a pro-life club. Other public high school students have had their displays destroyed by their own principal, been threatened to be kicked out of the school, and had their faculty advisors conveniently demoted so that they cannot advise the group any longer. Beginning to see a trend?
In the name of “neutrality,” public high schools have been become hostile to the pro-life message. In an attempt to “not offend” any students, they silence those who want to simply educate their peers about abortion. The problem? They aren’t actually neutral! Keontai told us of a conversation he had with a social worker at his school. She told him the school is not allowed to talk to students about pro-life issues, but if a student were to become pregnant, she would give her information about “all options,” including abortion. So, the administration can give the students information about having an abortion, but other students cannot give information about actual abortion? What!? With 18% of abortions being performed on teenagers, it is crucial that high school students have the freedom to express their pro-life views in a respectful manner.
Students for Life consulted Thomas Moore Legal Society to ensure the students were well within their rights to exist at public high schools. The simple answer? Yes! In 1984, the federal government passed the Equal Access Act in order to protect student’s rights (yes, even pro-life ones) at public schools. The act prohibits any restriction of open forum on basis of religious, political, philosophical, or other speech content, saying,
It shall be unlawful for any public secondary school which receives federal financial assistance and which has a limited open forum to deny equal access or a fair opportunity to, or discriminate against, any students who wish to conduct a meeting within that limited open forum on the basis of the religious, political, philosophical, or other content of the speech at such meetings. [i]
Simply put, if the public school receives federal funding, it becomes an “open forum.” In Tinker v. Des Moise Independent School Dist., the Supreme Court put it blankly, “neither students nor teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech and expression at the schoolhouse gate.” [ii] Students do not lose their right to be pro-life when they step on high school property. And even more than that, they can absolutely have a student group!
We have to challenge this pervasive thinking that has infected our high school administrations that pro-life groups cannot and should not exist at their school. The high school environment is created to be an “open forum” for all ideas to be equally presented. To restrict that right is to violate student’s first amendment rights. Starting pro-life groups at local public high schools is essential to changing this culture.
Are you, or someone you know, a student at a public high school? Are you having trouble with your administration? Contact Missy Martinez at [email protected] to ask for help!