Despite Settlement, Lake County School Board Still Resists Gay-Straight Alliance

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On May 6, the School Board members discussed the rules governing student clubs on campus for the next school year but did not come to any conclusions. The discussion came almost immediately after the Board settled a lawsuit with the ACLU that would allow 8th grader Bayli Silberstein to form a GSA that can meet for the remainder of the current school year, which ends in June.

At the May 6 meeting, school district attorney Stephen Johnson said that at the board’s May 13 meeting, he would bring more information about what clubs do and do not meet the criteria of the most-discussed plan, which would limit middle school clubs to those promoting critical thinking, community services, business, athletics and art. Right now, it’s unclear whether a GSA would fit into any of those categories.

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 ignored 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 voted to ban non-curricular clubs in middle schools but to allow them in high schools.

However, on April 22, the board voted 4-1 to table the GSA discussion after a change to 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. That Act 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.

Both Matthias and Howard admitted to lobbying for that law change.

Matthias, who represents District 1 in Lake County, has been a vocal opponent of a countywide policy permitting Silberstein to form a GSA at Carver Middle School.

The ACLU of Florida filed a lawsuit on May 1, 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.

On May 2, 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. That decree says 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 following the May 2 victory. “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.”

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