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In Lawsuit, McKeesport Area Students Demand Permission To Form Black Student Union

Forty-five percent of McKeesport Area School District students identify as black, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Education. Forty-four percent are white, and 10.5 percent identify as two or more races.

In a federal lawsuit filed Wednesday, 11 McKeesport Area high school students accused a school official of blocking their effort to create a black student union. The suit comes after the district did not meet a deadline the American Civil Liberties Union set for last Friday to allow the group to form.

“Despite the existence of a federal law, the Equal Access Act, and a school district policy that allows such student groups to meet,” the suit said, “the plaintiffs’ efforts have been stymied at every turn.”

The students, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, said they have tried for three months to get permission to meet at school. But, district superintendent Mark Holtzman has obstructed their efforts because, they said, he objected to calling their organization the “McKeesport Black Student Union.”

Holtzman said he did not oppose the name. Rather, he said last week that he worried that an activist parent was pushing for a black student union to advance her political agenda.

In Wednesday’s suit, however, the students said they themselves want to form black student union because they “long have been dissatisfied with the [district’s] failure to address racial bias in the [district].”

The complaint cited state data that show McKeesport Area schools expel black students at disproportionately higher rates than white students. While the district was 43.5 percent black during the 2017-18 school year, the complaint said, black students accounted for 68 percent of expulsions in the district. In contrast, the suit said 26 percent of expulsions were issued to white students, who accounted for 45.9 percent of the student body.

During the same period, the suit added, black students received 71 percent of out-of-school suspensions while white students accounted for 20 percent.

Students also wanted to create a black student union, the filing said, because they were “disappointed in how the [district] has handled recent incidents involving racially insensitive remarks by teachers.”

The students allege that the district “did not discipline a middle school teacher who told a class that black people benefited from being property during slavery.” Another teacher, they said, repeatedly used “physical aggression against black students.”

The students said they have not received permission to advertise the black student union or to meet on school premises, despite meeting Holtzman’s demand that they find a school advisor and establish a group mission. The students said, since February, the McKeesport Area school board has declined to consider whether to approve the group.

Instead, the complaint alleged, Holtzman took steps to replace the group with a separate club, called the “McKeesport Student Union.” According to the suit, Holtzman selected nine white students and six black students, only three of whom belonged to the original black student union, to form the new organization.

Holtzman told 90.5 WESA last week that the new club was meant to be more inclusive and that it would focus on creating fun activities for the student body.

The students argued in their lawsuit, however, that “the McKeesport Student Union is not a substitute for … the McKeesport Black Student Union,” which “already has a school advisor and mission statement.”

They have asked a federal court to order the district to approve the black student union “as a formally recognized non-curricular student club” and to give the group “the same access to school facilities as other non-curricular student clubs.”