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Amnesty International Loses Campus Bid

Times Staff Writer

Capistrano Unified School District trustees Monday night affirmed a decision by school administrators against allowing on-campus chapters of Amnesty International, the Nobel Prize-winning human rights group, at two high schools.

The decision came after a lengthy public hearing on the merits of letting organizations not affiliated with the district conduct meetings during school hours in classroom facilities.

Students at Dana Hills High School in Dana Point and Capistrano Valley High School in Mission Viejo had requested that they be allowed to start on-campus chapters of Amnesty International, which was formed in 1961 to seek the freedom of prisoners of conscience in Third World nations and to improve their treatment in custody.

More than 1,000 other public schools nationwide have formed Amnesty International chapters, including seven in Orange County, Amnesty officials said.

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Principals of the two Capistrano Unified high schools refused, however, as did District Supt. Jerome R. Thornsley. Thornsley cited a 1984 Capistrano Unified board ruling that prohibits groups from meeting on school grounds and during school hours if they are not directly related to the school curriculum.

Tried to Sway Board

At Monday’s meeting, about 100 students, parents and teachers turned out to try and sway the board, to no avail.

“The only consequences from approving a high school chapter of Amnesty International would be beneficial,” said Chris Bergerud, 17, a Dana Hills High senior who has tried to start an Amnesty chapter on that campus.

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Natalie Pierce, 18, a senior at Capistrano Valley High who sought to form a campus chapter there, argued that Amnesty International does relate to the school curriculum because it teaches about human rights, as does one of the school’s regular classes.

Most of the seven school trustees, however, supported Thornsley’s contention that opening up schools to Amnesty International would mean opening them up to many other groups--some desirable and some not.

“Do we want a group of skinheads coming in? I don’t think so,” Trustee Marlene Draper said.

But board member Paul B. Haseman drew loud applause when he said, “I’m willing to push the definition (of what is related to school curriculum) and risk the lawsuit.”

After trustees agreed to stand by the current policy, Pierce angrily pledged to seek legal action with the help of the human rights organization.

Pierce and Bergerud have both started off-campus chapters of Amnesty International, and each group claims about 60 students each.

The board policy was adopted after passage of the federal Equal Access Act of 1984, in which Congress decreed that school districts that use federal funds may not discriminate against any group not affiliated with the school that wanted to meet on campus during school hours.


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