Florida’s Lake County School Board Tables Gay-Straight Alliance Vote

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Applause and booing filled the Lake County School Board chamber when its members voted 4-1 to table discussion on whether or not to allow 14-year old Bayli Silberstein to form a Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) at her middle school. More than 300 people showed up at the meeting, many donning the color red in support of Silberstein.

She and her family left the meeting in a somber mood after the vote got tabled.

“I’m disappointed. I am really angry…I’m going to keep fighting,” said Silberstein.

Silberstein’s mom, Erica, called the School Board “bullies” for tabling the issue.

“I wish that I could tell her that everything is fine,” Erica Silberstein said. “This is what is needed and they are going to do it, but I can’t and it makes me mad.”

The delay was sparked by a recent 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, have 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.

“What we are talking about is an open club policy…It never for me was about a Gay-Straight Alliance, it is looking at what is an open club policy. I wasn’t for it in the middle school, period. Never was,” said Matthias. “There are too many other types of clubs that can come in Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam which appears to be faith-based but is really about hate.  There is the Sons of the Confederacy, which is about traditions in the South but can be perceived as hate.”

He said an open club policy for extracurricular clubs in middle schools would serve as a distraction to middle school students, who he is concerned do not have the same critical thinking skills as high school students.

Matthias accused the ACLU of “hitching their wagon” to the GSA issue because of a political agenda, not out of concern for Silberstein’s plea for School Board support due to school bullying and other issues LGBT students are up against in Lake County.

ACLU Mid-Florida Regional Director Joyce Hamilton Henry dismissed Matthias’ concerns as the wrong reason to deny Silberstein and other LGBT youth in Lake County the right to assemble.

“Our constitution protects all groups. The first amendment gives all groups the right to assemble. The should make this decision on the basis of Bayli and other students , not on the basis of their fears and biases,” said Hamilton Henry. “They need to deal with those situations as they come up. Right now, we want them to make a decision regarding Bayli. They have waited too long already.”

Matthias said he has not reached out to Silberstein or other students to listen to their concerns.

Lake School Board attorney Steve Johnson advised School Board members that the change in state law will no longer specifically define secondary schools as 6-12th grade, leaving the definition up to local school districts.  According to Johnson, the federal law gives discretion to each state to define what a secondary school is.

“The bottom line is that I cannot tell you with certainty anymore that the 'Equal Access Law' applies anymore,” said Johnson.

Johnson told the School Board that the legal change in how the state defines a secondary school may allow them to have a different policy for extracurricular clubs in middle schools and high schools. The School Board has initially considered banning all extra-curricular clubs versus allowing an open club policy that would permit LGBT and allied students like Silberstein to start a GSA.

The School Board will take the issue back to another series of workshops to reexamine the policy under the new law. They are expected begin next month.

From our media partner WatermarkDavid Thomas Moran, Watermark