PITTSBURGH - Eleven students from McKeesport Area High School filed a federal civil rights lawsuit today against the school district for denying the students permission to form a student club called the “Black Student Union.” The students, who are represented by the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, proposed the establishment of the McKeesport Black Student Union, but school administrators consistently diverted the students by requiring new conditions and eventually by refusing to approve the club. District Superintendent Mark Holtzman, Jr., who has publicly expressed his displeasure with both the name and mission of the Black Student Union, recruited a group of students to form another club called the McKeesport Student Union, for the purpose of “fun activities,” according to a press report.
“Those of us who want to form the Black Student Union have concerns about the way students of color are treated at McKeesport,” the MBSU students said in a statement. “We feel that the club, which would be open to all students, will be a space for us to discuss our concerns and then plan to constructively address those concerns in the broader school community, including with adult leaders. Unfortunately, administrators keep shutting us down.”
The students’ lawsuit challenges the school’s actions as violations of the First Amendment and of the federal Equal Access Act, which requires public schools to grant students the ability to form non-curricular clubs outside of instruction time without administrative interference and without discrimination based on the message or purpose of the club.
The lawsuit names the McKeesport Area School District and Superintendent Holtzman as defendants.
“The students at McKeesport have every right to form the Black Student Union,” said Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “We commend them for having enough passion about racial justice to create a club to make social change. That’s participatory democracy at its finest, and it’s something schools should encourage, not squelch.”
The complaint filed today in federal district court in Pittsburgh cites Pennsylvania Department of Education data that shows that students of color at McKeesport are disciplined at rates disproportionate to their share of the student population. In the 2017-18 school year, Black students comprised 43 percent of the student population but 68 percent of expulsions and 71 percent of out-of-school suspensions.
The students have also cited concerns about the district’s failure to address staff for misconduct and the lack of quality instruction in Black culture as their rationales for starting the Black Student Union.
“It’s unfortunate that the superintendent has blocked these wonderful, energetic young activists from organizing a Black Student Union; it’s also flatly illegal,” said Witold Walczak, legal director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “We gave him and the district ample opportunity to avoid this lawsuit, but instead he chose a path of obstruction and denial of the students’ rights. Now we’ll see him in court.”
The ACLU of Pennsylvania has asked the federal court to issue a preliminary injunction that would clear the way for the students to form the Black Student Union. The students are represented by ACLU of Pennsylvania Legal Director Witold Walczak and Senior Staff Attorney Sara Rose. A copy of the complaint and preliminary injunction brief filed today can be found at aclupa.org/McKeesportBSU.