ACLU Threatens Legal Action Against Pennsylvania School District If It Won’t Allow Creation of Black Student Union

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The ACLU of Pennsylvania is threatening to take a school district to court over the creation of a Black Student Union at a local high school.

The civil rights group gave the McKeesport Area School District until Friday, April 5, to comply with its demands or face legal action.

“If MASD fails to approve the club by the deadline, absent [of] a compelling explanation conveyed to us, we will seek a federal court injunction ordering the district to comply with our request,” the ACLU wrote in a letter to the district March 19.

Black Student Union
District’s superintendent Mark Holtzman said about 60 percent of the district’s students are either Black or biracial. (Image courtesy of WTAE Pittsburgh)

Witold “Vic” Walczak, legal director for ACLU of Pennsylvania, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that he had spoken with eight or nine students at McKeesport High School who expressed interest in starting a Black student union, and said there were likely more who supported the idea. The BSU would be just like any other student-run club, and would be open to anyone interested in joining, he said.

“Students have been trying since January to get approval for the club,” Walczak said, but added, “There have been various obstacles in the way. We’ve gotten substantial pushback — particularly from the superintendent.”

McKeesport Superintendent Mark Holtzman said that while he is on board with the idea of forming a student union, he wants it to include students of all races. The administration has already brought together a group of students, which it dubbed the “All Students Club,” but Holtzman knows it likely won’t meet the demands of the ACLU’s letter because the group is not specific to Black students.

“If I had to guess, I’ll probably be taken to federal court because in their opinion it’s not sufficient enough, because the demand is [for] a Black Student Union by one adult,” the superintendent told the newspaper.

The one adult Holtzman was referring to is Fawn Walker-Montgomery, who is spearheading the effort for a Black student union. He said Walker-Montgomery, who’s running for mayor of the Pittsburgh suburb of McKeesport, contacted him and Assistant Superintendent Tia Wanzo last summer about concerns she claimed “were never legitimized about the way business is done in the school district.”

Holtzman said it was Walker-Montgomery who “specifically” wanted to form a BSU at the school and said school board members were open to discussing the matter further to ensure the group wouldn’t cause any segregation or division among students.

For Walker-Montgomery, the need for a Black student organization came after she said parents in the district reached out to her with concerns that “black and brown kids” were being disciplined more harshly and were targeted after facing punishment, according to the Post-Gazette. She said her community activist group, Take Action Mon Valley, sent a letter to the district in August 2018 detailing their concerns and included a list of possible solutions. The formation of a black student union was on the list.

The mayoral candidate said follow-up meetings with the district went “very well” and by February the group of students had come up with a mission statement, found an adviser and submitted their request for the club to the district. The process came to a screeching halt, however, when Walker-Montgomery said the district canceled a panel to discuss the group.

“It’s been oddly personal,” she said of the district’s resistance on the matter. “It’s not about me and it’s not about him. I said that to him [Mr. Holtzman] at the meeting that night. It’s not about us. It’s about the kids.”

Holtzman, who told the newspaper that the district’s students are about 60 percent Black or biracial, argued otherwise and accused Walker-Montgomery of using the group to boost her political career.

“I tried to explain to [Mr. Walczak] that this is a political platform being created by one adult in the community,” he said. “It’s not nine families or multiple children. It’s [Ms. Walker-Montgomery] trying to create momentum for herself as a politician.”

“The ACLU’s just taking Fawn Walker’s word for what it is and making it an issue to kind of embarrass our school district in a way that doesn’t make sense,” Holtzman added.

Walker-Montgomery called the accusation “disheartening.” In regard to the BSU club, she said the district’s response to the students’ request was to “hand-pick certain kids” to start it. Nine of the students were white and six were Black, she said, adding that the group did include the students who wanted a group for Black students.

After speaking with Walczack, Holtzman said he agreed to allow a group of students who were representative of the student body to organize a meeting to decide what type of student organization they wanted.

“If they want to create a black student union and it’s representative of the student body, I’m in,” he told the Post-Gazette.