McKeesport students file civil rights lawsuit against district
High school students in the McKeesport Area School District filed a federal civil rights lawsuit Wednesday demanding the right to form a club called the Black Student Union.
The lawsuit, filed by 11 students against the district with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, contends that the district violated students’ First Amendment rights by repeatedly denying their efforts to form the club.
“Those of us who want to form the Black Student Union have concerns about the way students of color are treated at McKeesport,” the students said in a statement provided by the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “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 district and Superintendent Mark Holtzman are named as defendants.
In a joint statement provided by district spokeswoman Kristen James, school board President Joseph Lopretto and Vice President Mary Jane Keller expressed support for Holtzman, the high school staff and student body.
“Students, without any adult interference from Dr. Holtzman, or other staff members, met on this issue and determined that the need for a McKeesport Student Union was valid, but not one that would cause division amongst their peers,” the statement said.
Lopretto and Keller wrote that “information surrounding this process has been twisted and released onto social media to create anger and frustration that isn’t warranted.”
James said that district officials, including the superintendent, would not comment further Wednesday.
The suit also alleges that the district violated the federal Equal Access Act and argues that students should be allowed to form such a club “without administrative interference and without discrimination based on the message or purpose of the club,” according to a statement from the ACLU of Pennsylvania.
The ACLU of Pennsylvania did not immediately respond to a request to speak with the students Wednesday.
The students have been working to form the club since January, according to the lawsuit.
The students plan to use the club to work with the district to address issues including instruction in black culture and history, along with the apparent disproportionate number of suspensions and expulsions of black students over white students, according to the lawsuit.
McKeesport Area High School serves about 1,070 students in grades nine through 12, according to state Department of Education data.
About 43 percent of high school students identify as black, and about 45 percent identify as white, according to the data.
The students and the ACLU are seeking an injunction requiring the district and Holtzman to approve the operation of the Black Student Union as a formally recognized student club.
Jamie Martines is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jamie at 724-850-2867, [email protected] or via Twitter .