BUFFALO, N.Y. - The Buffalo School District let senior students at McKinley High School know Friday that they may bring the guest of their choice to next week's prom, as long as they are under the age of 21. In addition, the school's principal Crystal Boling-Barton has been placed on administrative leave.
2 On Your Side's Claudine Ewing spoke to Barton and she declined to speak on camera about the situation.
These moves come following a New York Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit on Wednesday accusing the Buffalo Public Schools and a high school principal of violating students' constitutional rights, bringing action on behalf of an 18-year-old student who claims he was denied the right to form a Gay-Straight-Alliance extracurricular group.
The lawsuit, which cites violations of the federal Equal Access Act and the First Amendment, alleges McKinley High School principal Crystal Boling-Barton repeatedly denied or ignored LGTBQ students' attempts to form the GSA club over the course of three years. NYCLU attorney Bobby Hodgson said his organization alerted the district of the complaints as early as August 2016, but district administrators did not take action.
That's what prompted the lawsuit.
"The school district should have done the right thing immediately upon finding out this GSA was being prohibited," Hodgson said. "No one should have to file a lawsuit to start a GSA at their high school."
In a statement sent on behalf the Superintendent Dr. Kriner Cash and Board President Dr. Barbara Seals-Nevergold, the district says it always has and will continue to uphold the democratic principles of active citizenship, personal integrity, civility and respect for others. They add that the district has a policy in place to ensure that students of the LGBTQ community are included and accepted in all school activities.
In addition, Dr. Kash has directed staff to help students form a Gay/Straight Alliance at McKinley as soon as possible.
The NYCLU released a statement Friday praising the district for taking a "welcome first step," but it confirmed the lawsuit is still active.
Byshop Elliot, the 18-year-old plaintiff, collected 136 signatures this March in support of a petition to form a Gay-Straight-Alliance. According to the lawsuit, at least 20 students asked staff members at McKinley High School this year about why the GSA still had not been created.
The NYCLU maintains that GSA groups are vital to ensuring that LGBTQ students feel safe at school, and it argues that the lack of a GSA is a violation of civil rights.
Elliot seemed to agree. He was the person who originally contacted the NYCLU about the issue.
"It was more or less just the fact that we are such a diverse school," Elliot said, "and I think we should definitely have somewhere where students who identify as LGBTQ should be able to go that's a safe space."
The lawsuit also contends that McKinley High School has a culture of "exclusion and discrimination" against LGBTQ students. The language of the suit specifically cites a school policy that did not allow same-sex couples to attend prom as dates.
The NYCLU accuses the principal of enforcing the policy.
"Under the leadership of Principal Crystal Boling-Barton, McKinley High School has imposed ongoing policies and practices that openly discriminate against LGBTQ members of the school community. LGBTQ students feel alienated and targeted," the lawsuit said.
Robert Boreanaz, the attorney for Boling-Barton, told 2 On Your Side on Friday that his client had not been made aware of any attempts to form a GSA at McKinley High School. Disputing several of the allegations in the lawsuit, Boreanaz said Boling-Barton would have allowed any GSA to form, as long as students had applied with the proper credentials under school and district policies.
His statement contradicts claims in the lawsuit, which argue Boling-Barton ignored or denied both written and emailed requests for the formation of a GSA.
"This lawsuit is the very first occasion Principal Barton has ever heard of this complaint or these concerns," Boreanaz said. "Mrs. Barton is a very progressive and experienced principle with a long track record of dedication to treating students equally, and treating students with respect, regardless of race, ethnicity or orientation."
Boreanaz also disputed the claims that Boling-Barton enforced a policy that banned same-sex couples from attending prom together.
In addition to damages, the NYCLU and Elliot are seeking an injunction to allow for the creation of the Gay-Straight-Alliance.
"We are eager to have this issue resolved as quickly as possible," Hodgson said. "The point of this lawsuit is first and foremost, to get the GSA approved at McKinley as quickly as possible. Get these students meeting before the end of the school year, and get these students' rights fully vindicated."