McKeesport School District Says Black Student Union Would Violate Federal Law

Apr 18, 2019

The McKeesport Area School District punched back Wednesday against a federal lawsuit that accuses the district and its superintendent of blocking the creation of a black student union. 

The district argued in court filings that the proposed club would violate the federal Equal Access Act because, the district said, a parent is “the driving force” behind the proposed club.

The district said Fawn Walker-Montgomery, whose daughter is a named plaintiff in the suit, has been instrumental to the formation of a black student union since August. And under the federal statute, the district continued, “nonschool persons may not direct, conduct, control, or regularly attend activities of student groups.”

An activist and McKeesport mayoral candidate, Walker-Montgomery, has denied that she is the group’s primary advocate. She said she has merely supported McKeesport students who have share their concerns with her.

Still, the district warned, a victory for the black student union “would not only undermine the EAA and [district] policy, but would condone the takeover of extracurricular activities by non-students at [the district] and secondary schools throughout the Western … Pennsylvania.”

The students who brought the suit contend that the Equal Access Act, and the First Amendment, require the district to give their proposed group “the same access to school facilities as other non-curricular student clubs.”

They allege that district superintendent Mark Holtzman has obstructed their efforts to start a black student union, despite meeting his requirement to find a school advisor and identify the group’s goals and expectations in writing.

In a motion to dismiss the case, however, the district contends that Walker-Montgomery’s daughter told a guidance counselor who had agreed to serve as advisor that the guidance counselor would not need to attend black student union meetings. Instead, the district said, Walker-Montgomery planned to attend the meetings, and “had developed a list of activities with dates and times” for the guidance counselor to review.

The district also noted that a volunteer organization led by Walker-Montgomery, Take Action Mon Valley, planned to serve as a “community advisor” to the club. In an August letter to district officials, Take Action Mon Valley said the black student union at Penn State’s Greater Allegheny campus would also play an advisory role.

The district pointed out that the black student union’s charter said advisors would have the power to cast tie-breaking votes on matters that come before the group.

Students named in the suit told 90.5 WESA that they themselves want to form a black student union to celebrate black history and culture and to address racial disparities in school discipline. Their complaint, filed last week by the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, cites 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. Twenty-six percent of expulsions were issued to white students, who accounted for 45.9 percent of the student body.

The students also fault Holtzman for inviting students to form a new club, which the students said is meant to replace the black student union. According to the suit, Holtzman recruited nine white students and six black students, three of whom belonged to the original black student union, to form what’s now called the “McKeesport student union.”

In its filing, the district said Holtzman “had no objection to the creation of a black student union.” But because the proposed club “was not initiated by the students and did not provide for student control,” he wanted “students in leadership positions … to meet and discuss the formation” of a black student union. It was those students who decided to name the new club the “McKeesport student union,” according to both Holtzman and the students who sued the district.

The district has asked federal judge Marilyn Horan to dismiss the students’ request for a preliminary injunction, which would require the district to allow the black student union to meet at school. It also asked to postpone a hearing in the case scheduled for Monday.