Florida’s Lake County School Board to Allow a Gay-Straight Alliance After ACLU Lawsuit

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The battle for the school club goes back to Nov. 2012, when Bayli Silberstein, 14, first requested permission to form the club. On Jan. 23, the ACLU sent a letter to Lake County School Board attorney Stephen Johnson, demanding the district follow through on Silberstein’s  request for a GSA to “confront bullying, educate the school community, and promote acceptance and equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students.”

According to Silberstien, school officials had been ignoring her request. After the ACLU sent the letter, the School Board proposed a plan to ban all non-curricular student clubs, rather than allow the GSA.

On March 11, the board voted 3-2 in favor of allowing non-curricular clubs, which would pave the way for the GSA. The district attorney presented three options: allowing non-curricular clubs at the districts’ high schools while closing them to middle schools, allowing non-curricular clubs at both high schools and middle schools, or closing non-curricular clubs to both high schools and middle schools.

Board members Rosanne Brandeburg, Debbie Stivender and Chairwoman Kyleen Fischer were the votes in favor, while Tod Howard and Bill Mathias expressed for banning non-curricular clubs in middle schools but allowing them in high schools.

However, on April 22, the board voted 4-1 to table the GSA discussion after a change Senate Bill 1076, which will go into effect July 1 and potentially no longer requires Florida middle schools to adhere to the federal Equal Access Act, which protects student’s rights to organize clubs in secondary schools. Governor Rick Scott signed the bill into law on April 22, the same day of the school board meeting.

Two Lake County school board members, Bill Matthias and Todd Howard, admitted to lobbying for that law change. Matthias, who represents District 1 in Lake County, has been a vocal opponent of a county-wide policy permitting Silberstein to form a GSA at Carver Middle School.

The ACLU of Florida filed a lawsuit on May 1st, claiming that the School Board, District Superintendent  and Principal of Carver Middle School violated Silberstein’s rights under the federal Equal Access Act and the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.

May 2nd, the School Board relented. According to the ACLU, the parties in the case have entered into a consent decree allowing Silberstein to form the club for the remainder of the school year. The club will be officially recognized and can meet on the same terms as any other club.

“I’m just so happy that our club is finally going to be allowed to meet,” said Silberstein in a media release. “There’s only about a month left of school, but that’s still a month we can use to start doing the work to make this school a safer and more welcoming place.”

Bayli’s mother, Erica Silberstein, said all Bayli ever wanted was to make her school a better place.

“I’m proud of her for fighting so hard, and I hope her story is a lesson that even if things seem tough, you can make things better,” she said.

According to the ACLU, the School Board would have had to use taxpayer money to fight the lawsuit.

“We are very pleased that the school board has recognized the value in complying with clearly established federal law,” said Daniel Tilley, staff attorney for the ACLU of Florida, in a media release. “It’s unfortunate that it took months of delay, hundreds of concerned parents and neighbors crowding into school board meetings, tens of thousands of petition signers, nationwide media scrutiny, and a federal lawsuit for the school board to do right by their students, but we are nevertheless gratified that Bayli will get to form her club. I imagine that Lake County taxpayers are grateful, too.”

From our media partner WatermarkWatermark

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