'Noncurriculum-related' and 'curriculum-related' clubs have different legal rights

by Anthony S. Deluca

On Board Online • August 14, 2017

Anthony S. Deluca
Law Offices of Thomas M. Volz, PLLC

The federal Equal Access Act guarantees certain school access rights to student clubs that are "noncurriculum-related" but does not confer the same rights on "curriculum-related" clubs. What's the difference between the two types of clubs?

This is a judgment call that school officials should make on a case-by-case basis with their school attorneys when questions of access arise. But court decisions provide guidance and examples of both kinds of clubs.

"A group directly relates to a school's curriculum if the group's subject matter is actually taught, or will soon be taught, in a regularly offered course; if that subject matter concerns the body of courses as a whole; or if participation in the group is required for a particular course or results in academic credit," according the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in Board of Education of Westside Community Schools v. Mergens (1990).

In Boyd Cnty. High Sch. Gay Straight Alliance v. Bd. of Educ. of Boyd Cnty. (2003), a U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky ruled that "curriculum related must mean something other than being remotely related to abstract educational goals... [and] the term noncurriculum related student group is to be interpreted broadly to mean any student group that does not directly relate to the body of courses offered by the school."

The Kentucky case involved a school district's claim that it was lawful to prevent a gay-straight alliance from using school facilities because all noncurricular clubs were banned. The district asserted that the only clubs that were functioning on campus were curriculum-related and, therefore, not protected by the Equal Access Act. This prompted the court to examine which clubs were and were not curriculum-related.

The court identified four clubs at Boyd County High School that were curriculum-related: (1) Future Farmers of America, (2) Future Career and Community Leaders of America, (3) Future Business Leaders of America, and (4) the Health Occupation Student Organizations. The court noted that "maintenance of these student organizations is required for the career and technical education program to be in compliance with state regulations." In addition, participation in some of those clubs was necessary for certain classes within the district, such as home economics, marketing and agriculture classes.ÿ

The Gay-Straight Alliance, on the other hand, was noncurriculum-related, according to the court. Likewise, the court determined, the Drama Club, Bible Club, Executive Councils and Beta Club were also noncurriculum-related. (This was critical to the case because the latter had been granted access to school facilities despite an official ban on all noncurriculum-related clubs including the Gay-Straight Alliance.)

The Boyd court left open the possibility that certain other clubs involved in the case - the Kentucky United Nations Assembly, the Mock Trial and Teen Court, academic teams, athletic teams and cheerleading squads - could be curriculum-related but did not state this explicitly.


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