An effort to form a black student union within the McKeesport Area School District has had trouble getting off the ground. District superintendent Mark Holtzman has resisted the idea even though the American Civil Liberties Union has warned it could sue over the matter.
“Under both federal anti-discrimination law and under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution,” ACLU of Pennsylvania legal director Vic Walczak said, “the school district has to allow the students to form this club of their choosing.”
But, the lawyer said, the district continues to block the initiative. He said his organization will sue the district in federal court if it does not approve the proposed club by Friday.
In a March 19 letter to district officials, Walzcak wrote that the federal Equal Access Act requires “federally funded secondary schools that permit meetings of any non-curriculum-related student groups to provide equal access to all students wishing to form such groups.” Citing numerous cases, the letter added that “courts consistently uphold the Equal Access Act’s protection for students refused permission to form student clubs.”
McKeesport students first discussed the idea of a black student union with a school principal in January, according to Walczak. They were concerned, Walczak said, about racial disparities within McKeesport schools and wanted to focus on black cultural issues.
After learning about the club, Walczak said, administrators “kept throwing in new conditions,” telling the involved students they would need to find an adviser, draft a charter, and receive approval from the school board in order to create the club.
Walczak said the board ignored a request to put the club on its agenda at a February school board meeting. Instead, the attorney said, Holtzman, the superintendent, “expressed his displeasure at the formation of the club.”
“He seems to think that this suggests that there may be some issues in the school district, and he would prefer that the students form an ‘all students’ club’ as opposed to a black student union,” Walczak said.
Holtzman said the suggestion that minority students in the district are being mistreated is “offensive.” If that were the case, he said, it “means as a leader, I’m doing a poor job of not being culturally sensitive, not building a relationship with our students.”
But, the superintendent disputed Walczak’s description of events. He said he initially encouraged the students who suggested creating a black student union to write a formal proposal.
Holtzman said he grew wary of the initiative at the February school board meeting, where he said, it became apparent that local activist and McKeesport mayoral candidate Fawn Walker-Montgomery was behind the effort.
“The whole process has actually been formulated by a parent, not by the students, as it’s being portrayed,” Holtzman said. “She uses that as a platform to push political agendas.”
Walker-Montgomery, who founded the anti-gun violence group Take Action Mon Valley, has been a leading voice calling for greater police accountability in the Pittsburgh region.
Holtzman said Walker-Montgomery was one of just three speakers at the February school board meeting to express support for the black student union. Another speaker, the superintendent said, was Walker-Montgomery’s daughter, a McKeesport Area High School student.
Walker-Montgomery denied she is the primary force promoting the black student union. She said 12 students are pushing for the club. And, she said, McKeesport students reached out to her organization in August to express concerns about racial dynamics at school.
“The notion that I’m not allowed to care or be a parent is ridiculous,” Walker-Montgomery said. “It’s just a political bullying tactic, and it has no grounds: Children came to Take Action Mon Valley; Take Action Mon Valley responded.”
The students were concerned, Walker-Montgomery said, that their black peers were suspended at disproportionately high rates. They also felt they could not discuss issues of race at school and were dissatisfied with the quality of the district’s black history instruction, according to Walker-Montgomery.
“This is not about me,” the activist said. “This is about kids coming to the school saying, ‘This is how I feel.’”
Walzcak said he met as recently as Tuesday with nine students who are passionate about the club and agreed with Walker-Montgomery that a parent’s involvement does not matter.
“Why’s [Holtzman] punishing students because he might not like a mother?” Walczak asked.
The superintendent countered that students, not parents, should “lead this discussion.” So, following the school board meeting in February and after discussing the matter with the ACLU, he recruited about 15 students, including some who wanted to be part of the black student union, to form a new club.
“I wanted to make sure that if they wanted to create an organization or group, I wanted to give them an opportunity to do so,” Holtzman said.
The new club adopted the name “student union” in place of “black student union,” according to Holtzman, who said the organization will focus on creating fun activities for the student body.
“That’s not how this works,” Walczak said. “Our clients have drafted a charter. They have a student adviser. They have an idea in mind about what they want to focus on, and it’s not the school’s business to tell them how to set up or run their club.”
Walczak noted that the proposed black student union would be open to all students regardless of race.
*This story was updated at 2:30 p.m. on Thurs., April, 2019, to include comments from Walker-Montgomery and to clarify that Holtzman found the accusation that minority students at McKeesport Schools, not the proposal for a black student union, to be “offensive.”