My work with the SSA

Here’s my personal start to SSA Week.  This post is long.  There is no TL;DR.  Please read it.

Let me tell you a little bit about what I do at the SSA.  What you always hear about the SSA is that we’re doing good work.  While that’s very true, I’d like to take a moment to give you some details.  First though, I want to share one of the most touching things I’ve ever received.  This came from Jessica Ahlquist.

“When JT Eberhard contacted me and gave me the support of the Secular Student Alliance I felt like I had friends again.  Over the course of two years the SSA provided me with support and JT closely monitored the actions of the school committee, always ready to come to my defense at any minute.  He expressed that he cared not only for the issue at my school but also for my well-being and shared personal stories and advice.  Anyone can tell that for JT and the rest of the SSA staff, their positions within the organization are not merely a source of income, but a life-long passion and a genuine desire to help young secular people.  When I attended their annual conference last summer and was given the opportunity to share my story I felt a sense of community I had never experienced before.  I know so many other students who share my feelings and are thankful for the SSA and their brilliant staff.  They are literally changing lives.”

I wish emails like this paid the bills, because I value them more than money.

Last year, in Auburn, AL, Duncan Henderson wanted to form a secular club at his public high school.  The principal denied his request without explanation.  When his father met with the principal, the principal showed up with a lawyer en towe.  The response to every question was, “We’re going to follow the law.”

The school did follow the law eventually.  After we spent about a month applying pressure to the school the principal resigned and his replacement made it clear that the secular club would not only be allowed but would be given the same privileges as all other school groups.

We won.  And when we win, the students like Duncan win.


Then there was the case of Brian Lisco at Stephen F. Austin High School in Sugarland, TX.  Again, the formation of a secular club was being stifled, this time by an administrator dragging her feet.  USA Today told the story of that fight.

“Brian Lisco, 18, a senior Stephen Austin High School in the Houston suburbs, found his efforts to form a club were delayed for three months by one hurdle after another. At one point the principal said he could have the club — if he just called it a Philosophy Club and did not affiliate with the Secular Student Alliance.”

You can bet that when the Fellowship of Christian Athletes applied for school recognition that they were not asked to call themselves a philosophy club.  You can also bet that they were not forbidden from affiliating with their national headquarters.  This was a shot at marginalizing atheists while appearing conciliatory.

But we have keen leaders in high schools.  Brian caught that attempt at marginalization and told them flat out that nothing short of equal treatment would suffice.

During this whole kerfuffle I sent Brian’s administrator several emails explaining how what she was doing was illegal.  She refused to budge.  Then we launched a media campaign including the USA Today article and that was when she caved.

But why cave only when it became apparent that the eyes of the nation were about to be on that situation?  Why not cave when you’ve been made aware that you’re breaking the law and discriminating against a minority…unless, of course, you’re not ashamed of either of those things.  If you believe you’re in the right, why should that matter that USA Today is going to write a story about it?  It shouldn’t.   You only cave at that point if you know what you’re doing is illegal and it isn’t the breaking the law or the unequal treatment of atheist students that bothers you, it’s the potential of being caught.

Here’s the flat out truth: atheism is feared.  Secular high school students shoulder that stigma whether they want to or not.  And some administrators let their duty as a Christian to oppose nonbelief take precedence over their duty as an administrator to treat students equally.  Take it from me; there are a lot of administrators out there just like the one in Sugarland.  I get to interact with them every single week.  Until recently, there was no group actively checking them.

But now there is.  This, amongst other things, is what I was hired to do.  I’ve been an activist for the last decade and I have never been more proud of the work I’ve done than the work I do here at the SSA.


Then there was Cody in Yellville, AR who was pulled out of class and scolded by his assistant principal for trying to start a secular club.  I immediately sent a short email with the intent of finding the facts.

Mr. #####,

I have been in contact with a student at Yellville-Summit by the name of Cody Walker as he has been laying the groundwork for a secular club at the school.  I am told by Mr. Walker that he was recently pulled out of class and told (incorrectly) that the formation of a secular club is illegal.  Did this happen?

If I do not hear back from you by the end of the day tomorrow (Friday, Dec. 16) I will attempt to reach your office by phone.

Best,

JT

The following morning I received an irate phone call from the administrator in which he was yelling at me right off the start with accusations of intimidation.  The phone call was essentially me trying to explain the law to him in between fits of yelling on his end.  I repeatedly begged him to consult the school’s attorneys, but he would have none of it.

When I asked if, after having discussed the matter with the school’s attorney, he discovered the law demanded he allow the secular club to form if he would abide by the law, the assistant principal hung up.

This email to the superintendent and principal (with the assistant principal CC’d) was sent by me three weeks later.

Mr. #####, Mr. XXXXX, and Mr. YYYYY,

I apologize, in advance, for the length of this email.

I’ve already met Mr. #####, but for Mr. XXXXX and Mr. YYYYY my name is JT Eberhard and I am the high school organizer for the Secular Student Alliance. We are an organization that assists students in forming secular clubs at their high schools.  We also work with administrators like yourselves to help ensure that their rights as a minority are protected.  I’m writing to all of you because of a situation at Yellville-Summit that has drawn my concern.

On December 15, 2011 I received an email from Cody Taylor, a student at Yellville-Summit who wishes to form a secular club and who had requested group-starting resources from our organization.  The email said that Cody had been pulled out of class and told that it was illegal for the school to be associated with any club involving religion.  Because I wanted to double-check before jumping to conclusions, I sent Mr. ##### the following email.

Mr. #####,

I have been in contact with a student at Yellville-Summit by the name of Cody Walker as he has been laying the groundwork for a secular club at the school.  I am told by Mr. Walker that he was recently pulled out of class and told (incorrectly) that the formation of a secular club is illegal.  Did this happen?

If I do not hear back from you by the end of the day tomorrow (Friday, Dec. 16) I will attempt to reach your office by phone.

Best,

JT

I did misname the student, but only because I work with several students at a time, one of which has the last name “Walker”.  I simply got my wires crossed.

This did not stop Mr. ##### from knowing what I was talking about though.  He called me the following morning irate (he was borderline yelling from the moment I said “hello”).  He accused me of trying to intimidate him, rather than looking into a report of a rights violation of a secular student.

Our conversation continued with Mr. ##### chiding me for having my wires crossed on the student’s last name (“You don’t even know what student you’re talking about” was repeated over and over again) even though we both understood which student we were talking about.  Mr. ##### told me that he had pulled Mr. Taylor out of class to explain to him that a page on the internet that had the phrase “Yellville-Summit High School” without his authorization was illegal.  I initially explained to Mr. ##### that web pages did not need his authorization to refer to the goings on at the school.  He continued to insist that we were somehow breaking the law.  I asked him for the URL for the web site so I could look at it and Mr. ##### refused to give it to me.

As near as I could figure without Mr. #####’s help, the web site he was so irate about is the page our group auto-generates when a student requests a group-starting packet from us.  The one for Yellville-Summit is located here.

After repeated explanations that the use of the school’s name was not even remotely illegal and pleading with Mr. ##### to consult the district’s attorneys rather than relying on his own opinions for the legality of the page’s wording (he did assure me he would consult with the district’s attorneys), Mr. #####’s contention became the use of the word “faculty” in this sentence:

Students and faculty at Yellville-Summit High School are working to start a campus group for atheists, agnostics, nontheists, humanists, skeptics, freethinkers, and other students who do not believe in a god or gods.

I explained the justification to Mr. ##### (which can be read in the email cited below).  I also asked Mr. ##### if, after consulting with your district’s attorneys, they informed him that his administration was legally obligated by court precedent (as well as the Equal Access Act) to help facilitate the formation of this club, if he would do so.  It was at this point that Mr. ##### hung up the phone.

I immediately penned him the following email.

Mr. #####,

Re: our talk on the phone Friday, Dec. 16, 2011

First, on charges of intimidation.  My first email to you contained a single question and nothing that could even remotely be considered a threat.  That question was, “I am told by Mr. Walker that he was recently pulled out of class and told (incorrectly) that the formation of a secular club is illegal.  Did this happen?”  I wanted to get your side of the story before jumping to any conclusions.  This was paying you a respect, not an attempt at intimidation.

As for the web site you took issue with.  As far as I can discern (since you refused to provide me the URL) that page is located here.  It claims that students and faculty are working to create a Secular Student Alliance affiliate at Yellville-Summit High School and is auto-generated when students request a group-starting packet from us.  The issue you had with the page seemed to morph during our conversation.  Initially it was that Yellville-Summit High School was at the top of the page until it was pointed out that that merely designated where the new club was attempting to form.  Then your complaint became the use of the word faculty.

Those in a position of authority at the school are bound by the Equal Access Act to help students to form this club, so long as there is an open forum (which you have created with excellent clubs such as FCA, FBLA, etc.).  Even if there were no willing faculty sponsor at the school, the school is still obligated to appoint a facilitator to the group.  In Board of Education of Westside Community Schools v. Mergens, 496 U.S. 226 (1990), the United States Supreme Court ruled that a high school violated the Equal Access Act when it denied a student permission to form a Christian club.  The Court was guided by its observation that the purpose of the Act is to forbid schools to “deny access to school facilities to any unfavored student club on the basis of its speech content.”  Id. at 245.  Furthermore, the Court advised, the Act is to be given a “broad reading,” id. at 239, because a narrow reading would result either in almost no schools being subject to the Act, or it would permit schools to strategically evade the Act.  Id. at 244.  The Court held that the club must be allowed by the school, even though the student’s proposal called for the club to “have the same privileges and meet on the same terms and conditions as other … student groups, except that the proposed club would not have a faculty sponsor” as required by school regulations.  Id. at 232.  The Court pointed out that, at most, “the Act permits the assignment of a teacher, administrator, or other school employee to a meeting for custodial purposes.”  Id. at 253.

These cases were ruled in favor of Christian students in the same position in which Cody may find himself at Yellville.  They have been utilized in the past to obligate school systems (and their faculty) to work with the students, as I can only assume you are doing since you told me over the phone that you wish to abide by the law.  It is not unreasonable on anybody’s part to assume that you (and your faculty) will be helping Cody to form a secular club at Yellville-Summit High School.

This is a very good thing, Mr. #####.  Secular students face real discrimination and social ostracism (though, thankfully, not from their administration).

Recent research….shows that many students who identify as atheist – or related designations, such as humanist or free thinker – are, in fact, quite thoughtful about their purpose, morals, and values ….They state that their life purpose is to use their skills and talents in service to the environment, humanity, and all living creatures. Their purpose and morality are less about personal salvation after death and more about celebrating and contributing to the human condition.  (Kathleen M. Goodman1,  John A. Mueller2, Invisible, Marginalized, and Stigmatized: Understanding and Addressing the Needs of Atheist Students, Article first published online: 18 MAR 2009, DOI: 10.1002/ss.308)

The formation of a secular club will bring diversity and broader cultural understanding to Yellville-Summit high school.  This is a victory for Cody, for non-believers, for Christians, and for you and your administration.  Atheists ask only for the same rights and privileges already given to clubs like the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.  I have no doubt that you and your administration are eager to help.
We are not working against each other.  I do not wish to intimidate you.  I’m not citing court precedent because I anticipate legal action, I’m citing it so you are aware of it since, before you hung up, you told me you wanted to abide by the law.   I wish to work with you to help this club flourish and to aid both Cody and you in fulfilling the school’s obligation.  We have very similar goals: we want the best for Yellville-Summit High School and its students, we want to support minorities, and we want to make sure that equality is protected.

I’m sure the semester is wrapping up on your end.  I will give you the until Jan. 9 to confirm all of the above with your attorneys before I contact your office again.

Best,

JT

This email was sent on December 16, 2011.  I gave Mr. ##### more than three weeks to get back to me with his position and he has not done so.  This is where we presently stand.

So allow me to be completely candid.  I am very worried, given Mr. #####’s behavior, that he may not be willing to abide by his obligation as an administrator at Yellville-Summit High School by allowing a secular club to form.  I hope I’m wrong about this (and would be relieved to find out I was), but I trust, Mr. XXXXX and Mr. YYYYY, that you can empathize with why I would be concerned.

Here is what I don’t want: I don’t want this situation to be escalated.  I see that Yellville-Summit was just removed from the state’s fiscal distress list.  I am very happy for your school, and I do not wish to create a big problem for you, Mr. XXXXX, during your first year as superintendent.  However, this is a very important issue that must be resolved.

Here is what I would like: I want assurance from you that the formation of a secular club will be given support identical to any other club at Yellville Summit High School in accordance with the Equal Access Act.  I want assurance that the rights of minorities in your student population will be given the same respect as the rights of the majority.  I also would like assurance from  you that the formation of a secular club will not meet with any unreasonable impediments.  I can only assume you want the same.  I am being candid because I do not view us as being on opposing sides of this issue.  I want to work with you on this.

Please respond to me by Wednesday, January 11th with your position on this matter.  Should you require more time to consult with your legal counsel, please let me know and we can work something out.  I apologize for throwing out deadlines.  Rest assured that I do this with everybody I contact, not to intimidate, but because I’ve learned in the last year that it is not uncommon in these situations for administrators to drag their feet (as Mr. ##### has already done), and I simply must put checks in place to make sure that does not happen.  If I’ve not heard from you by the end of the day on Wednesday, I will contact you myself.

Best,

JT

The school caved afterward.

A great deal of my first three months on this job were spent with my nose buried in legal papers and assembling a crack team of volunteer legal advisers to ensure that I could successfully navigate the legally difficult terrain of high schools.  It’s a good thing I did.  During the school year I send a couple of these emails each week at minimum.  And these are only the administrations that come to my attention.  There are many more out there.  As the high school program continues to expand, I will be encountering more and more of them.  I’m already planning for this type of thing to occupy most of my time in the fall.


Recently you heard the story of Jade Sigler.  Let me give you the details on that one.   Jade sent me an email containing the following information:

Our high school claims that our proposed campus club is “controversial” and flat out denied our proposal despite the fact we had arranged a club sponsoring teacher, and had 56 signatures of people who supported the club and wanted to be a part of this. What’s most frustrating is the fact that our campus has a “fellowship of christian athletes” which is allowed, but apparently no other religiously affiliated clubs are.

I immediately contacted her administrator.

Mr. #####,

My name is JT Eberhard and I am the high school organizer with the Secular Student Alliance.  The Secular Student Alliance empowers students to organize and maintain secular clubs.  We provide resources, offer guidance, and educate them about their rights.

In the event that those rights are violated, we step in to ensure the students get the support and opportunities they’re entitled to under the law.  The violation is often a misunderstanding which can be set right with a letter or phone call explaining the relevant case law and the students’ needs.  If necessary, however, we connect the students with legal representation and bring the matter to court.

Secular students are often mistreated and misunderstood, and we take defending them very seriously.  Whether it’s a friendly letter, a media campaign, or legal action, we intend to see that they’re treated well.  Thank you for your understanding and cooperation in seeing that all your students get treated fairly.

Today I received an email from Jade Sigler who has been in the process of forming a secular club at Melbourne High School.  I am told that the club was denied recognition on the grounds of being controversial.  If this is true it is in direct violation of the Equal Access Act since your school’s web site displays a number of non-academic clubs (such as Fellowship of Christian Athletes) which designates Melbourne High School as an open forum.

I’d be very interested to hear your perspective on what’s happening there.  Please respond with your side of this story no later than end of day Thursday, February 10.  If I do not hear from you before then I will attempt to contact your office directly.

Best,

JT Eberhard

A popular tactic employed by obstinate administrators is to drag their feet and hope I go away.  This is what happened here, which earned him the following email.

Mr. #####,

I requested an email confirming your position of the possible illegal banning of a secular club at Melbourne High School.  I gave you until end of day last Thursday to provide this email and you failed to do so.  If I do not hear back from you today I will bring attorneys into the discussion.

That got his attention.

Mr. Eberhard,

All proposed clubs should refer to school board policies 2430 and/or 5730 and follow those guidelines.  Once the proposal meets those guidelines then students may submit their request to Mr. XXXXX our Athletic/Activities Director for consideration.

Thank you

But this turned out to be another hoop, presumably with the hopes that I would be tired enough to not jump through it.  I called him on it.

Mr. #####,

I have found the guidelines you mentioned.  I have read through them and am unsure where the proposed club, the Fellowship of Atheist and Agnostic Athletes, whose recognition was recently rejected, clashes with them.  Could you be more specific?

I am hearing very unnerving reports from the students.  I am told they went through the standard procedure and did present their club to Mr. XXXXX who denied it, not on the basis of the policies above (which, it looks to me that the students have followed), but because it was “too controversial”.  You need to assure me that this is not the reason the club was rejected by Mr. XXXXX, because if it was, then Mr. XXXXX, and also your administration, has unequivocally broken the law.  If that is the case, we will need to discuss how that violation can be rectified as swiftly as possible.

First, under the Equal Access Act (EAA) you are bound to allow their club equal access whether it is controversial or not.  Second, in Pope v. East Brunswick Board of Education, 12 F.3d 1244 (3d Cir. 1993) the court considered whether the EAA is limited in application to schools that allow student-initiated clubs or extends to schools that allow only faculty-initiated clubs.  The court adopted the broader interpretation, reasoning that a narrow interpretation of the Act would allow schools to limit clubs to those with mainstream interests for which faculty sponsors could be easily found, while excluding clubs that espouse objectionable views on the ground that no sponsor could be found.  Id. at 1250-51.  Many similar cases confirm that prejudice in favor of groups with non-controversial purposes is in direct conflict with the EAA.  Whether their group is controversial is irrelevant.  They have the right to form.

I am also told that the students presented Mr. XXXXX with a paper detailing their legal right to form and citing the EAA.  The paper, which I have read, is well-researched and legally sound.  Here is an excerpt:

Our group is perhaps contrary to popular belief, but our right to form this group is backed by Supreme Court rulings (Tinker v. Des Moines, Board of Education of West Side Community Schools v. Mergens, and Pope v. East Brunswick Board of Education) and the United States Constitution.

When asked if he had read it, Mr. XXXXX told the students he had “briefly glanced over it.”  That is not an adequate response.  Violations of the law should be taken seriously.  When faced with Mr. XXXXX’s dismissive response they did not get angry, but in the spirit of good faith, they did their research and wrote an essay explaining their legal rights.  Scholarly dedication of this sort should be rewarded in an academic environment, not “glanced over” and dismissed.

During our interactions there has been a conspicuous and disturbing silence on your end, Mr. #####.  Please understand that it is not uncommon for administrators seeking to stonewall the formation of a secular club to drag their feet and stay silent hoping those involved will lose interest.  Perhaps this is not what you are doing, but your silence matches past patterns indicative of such behavior.  To safeguard against this, I must again ask that you get back with me on this no later than end of day Wednesday, February 22.  What I need to know is what part of these policies, specifically, were responsible for the rejection of the proposed FAAA club at Melbourne High School.  In the spirit of expecting the best of those I interact with I gave you an additional chance to respond to me the last time you stayed silent beyond the deadline I had set.  That will not happen again.  This is a very serious matter and I expect you and Mr. XXXXX to treat it that way.

It is my wish for this to get resolved amicably, but in order for that to happen, you must be an active part of this conversation. If you are unwilling to do so, I will be forced to involve legal counsel in order to ensure that the rights of these students are being protected.

After this, Mr. XXXXX met with the students and approved the club.


Understand that this long post contains only a few examples out of tons.  I’ve been on this job for 17 months now and I could honestly go on long enough to tire out the most energetic reader.  If I were to include the library of my correspondence with obstructive high school administrations it would be a lengthy book, and that book is unfortunately always growing.  Yet, in all these cases, we have never had to sue anybody.  We have always gotten them to cave.

This is the reality of the high school landscape.  Right now it is a fight for equality.  My job is to organize the alteration of that landscape, to get us to a point where equality is the expectation, not something that requires browbeating people who abuse positions of power in order to discriminate.

And this is just a small part of what I do.  As part of the SSA I also get to lend support to these students once we’ve helped to get their club recognized.  I get to help them plan events.  I get to share with them a decade’s worth of experience as an activist.  I get to help them change the world.  It is fulfilling work.  It is necessary work.

This is what the SSA does, and I am just one small part of it.  Every single member of this organization is just as passionate.  The next generation is where we’re making the most traction.  Despite the length of this post, all you’ve just gotten a glimpse into a fraction of what I do.  What I do is a very small fraction of what the SSA does.

So this is what it comes down to: if you donate money to not-for-profits, if you’ve never donated to a not-for-profit but you support the next generation of secular activists, make a donation to the SSA.  We can’t all donate $50,000.  Donate what you can.  Your money will change things.

I love this work.  All of us love this work.  Help us do it.

About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.

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  • http://atheistlogic.wordpress.com OmniZ

    JT, you’re awesome! I hope someday I can have a job like yours. :D

  • mike

    Is there a way to have a donation earmarked for the high school program?

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/wwjtd JT Eberhard

      Wow. I appreciate the sentiment and am flattered.

      Trust me, there’s no need. When I ask for money, my superiors know that it’s money I need and I will almost certainly get it.

      I’m touched you asked though. *hug*

  • http://researchtobedone.wordpress.com researchtobedone

    How do you not burnout, dealing with stuff like this?

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/wwjtd JT Eberhard

      I’ve honestly never even come close to burning out. Then again, I’ve never looked at fighting, criticizing, or being criticized as that stressful of a thing.

      The worst part for me is realizing just how many shitty people are out there who will orchestrate inequality for students without batting an eyelash. There are bad people out there, and dealing with them day in and day out sometimes leaves you thinking everybody’s bad, which of course isn’t the case.

      Ultimately, doing this work helps me sleep at night. It makes me feel like my life is worth something. I always tell my bosses they’re fools for paying me because I’d do this for free.

  • tubi

    Thanks for the background notes. Even dedicated supporters often only hear of major incidents, like the recent kerfuffle up in E. Cranston. It’s interesting to see that it’s happening everywhere. I would probably last another 20 or 30 paragraphs – I have pretty good reading stamina.

    I have two kids who will be entering 2nd grade and K next fall, so they are a while away from these types of problems. Their elementary school principal seems pretty tuned in to his responsibilities – I like him a lot. It does bother me a little that at their annual holiday music show the kids sing “Away in a Manger,” “The First Noel,” among others. But they balance it with a Kwanzaa song and a Hanukkah song, as well as a bunch of secular songs like “Up on the Rooftop,” so I guess it’s OK.

    I don’t know much about the HS scene yet, though. I hope we don’t need you in 10 years, but it’s nice to know that you, or someone like you, will be there if we do.

    Will be donating tonight when I get home and balance my checkbook.

  • PhilMay

    J.T.

    Thanks for this wonderful post.

    In addition to helping provide a critical sense of community for Atheist, Agnostic and Secular students, you are teaching motivated young people that our freedoms must be fought for every day by brave people not afraid to stand up for their rights.

    You have earned the dubious honor of being the first blog I check every day.

    Thank you for your hard work helping to maintain our freedoms. I think I’ll make a bid or two on that knitted FSM on Ebay.

    Phil

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