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McKeesport School District Reaches Settlement Over Black Student Union

An-Li Herring
90.5 WESA
Vic Walczak, legal director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, spoke at a news conference with six of the eleven students who sued the McKeesport Area School District earlier in April.

The McKeesport Area School District reached a settlement Monday with 11 students who sued the district and its superintendent earlier this month. The students, who were represented by the ACLU of Pennsylvania, accused the district of blocking their effort to create a black student union, though administrators deny that claim.

Under the settlement, the district must approve the club, as long as it complies with terms agreed to by the parties. Vic Walczak, legal director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, said the district also must pay $10,000 in attorney’s fees.

Ninth-grader JaSona Belyeu, who identifies as a member of the proposed black student union, said she looks forward to starting the club “mainly because we can all come together, all races, and be able to talk freely and voice our opinions about a lot of things.”

District officials said they, too, were satisfied with the settlement, which says outside individuals or organizations may not lead the black student union or regularly attend its activities at school.

The district had argued that parent and McKeesport mayoral candidate Fawn Walker-Montgomery was “the driving force” behind the proposed group. The district also said her involvement violated the federal Equal Access Act, which says “nonschool persons may not direct, conduct, control, or regularly attend activities of student groups.”

“We’re pleased that the court seemed to decide that it needed to be a student-initiated group,” said district superintendent Mark Holtzman, who was named as a defendant in the suit. “The outside influences have been discredited at this point. And we look forward to working with our students to establish the black student union, as well as any group that they may be interested in.”

Walker-Montgomery, whose daughter was a named plaintiff in the suit, denied that she played a leading role in advocating for a black student union. Instead, she said, she merely supported McKeesport students who told her they wanted to form the club.

Regardless, Walczak said he’s confident his clients, all girls, would have prevailed at trial. Still, he’s satisfied with the settlement.

“We’re glad that the school district has found a narrative that they’re comfortable with,” he said. “And we’re looking forward to the girls and other students moving forward with the club.”

The ACLU criticized Holtzman in part because, after receiving a request to form a black student union, he invited a group of 15 students to discuss forming a new club. For the most part, the 15 students were not involved with the proposal to form a black student union, and they decided to create the “McKeesport Student Union” instead.

Holtzman defended his actions, saying he recruited the students at the ACLU’s request, in an effort to avoid a lawsuit.

“We agreed upon, with the ACLU, to establish a group of students that determine the direction in which they wanted to have a student voice and what ... they would want to call their “organization or group,” Holtzman said.

Walczak declined to discuss that exchange, saying that he’s ethically bound as a lawyer to keep settlement discussions confidential.

He said, however, “that’s neither here nor there when it comes to the fact [that] you have these students who come together and wanted to create a black student union.”

In their complaint, the students argued that the district had violated their rights under the Equal Access Act and the First Amendment.

Those laws, the filing said, guarantee the students “the same access to school facilities as other non-curricular student clubs.”

Hotlzman maintains that he never objected to the creation of a black student union. Rather, he told WESA in early April that he found the suggestion that minority students are mistreated at McKeesport Schools to be “offensive.”

In its court filings, the district focused on Walker-Montgomery’s role. It noted that an organization tied to the parent was one of two civic groups that would have served as advisors to the black student union, as proposed. Those groups, Take Action Mon Valley and Penn State Greater Allegheny, would have sat on the club’s executive committee, with the power to cast tie-breaking votes.

The settlement agreement establishes that Take Action Mon Valley and Penn State Greater Allegheny are “non-school persons” who “may not direct, conduct, control, or regularly attend in-school activities” of any future black student union at McKeesport.

Walczak did not contest that point but noted, “If the school district, frankly, had told [the students] that you’re not allowed to have outside groups, that never would have been an issue.”

“In fact,” he added, “the students put outside groups on [their application to create a black student union] because they thought it might look good to show that they are supervised by adults.”

Holtzman said he wouldn’t have done anything differently prior to the lawsuit.

The suit came about after the district missed an April 5 deadline set by the ACLU to approve the formation of the proposed black student union.

The settlement agreement said the students who brought the lawsuit may submit a new application to form the club. If the application satisfies the terms of the settlement, the district must recognize the group within 10 days as “a non-curricular student activity” that is entitled to “the same rights, privileges and benefits that [it] provides to any other non-curricular student activity.”

Walczak said his clients have already drafted an application for him to review. He expects they will submit the request to district officials within the next two days.