A sign hangs on the front gates of Carver Middle School which reads, “There’s no wrong way to do the right thing.” It’s Feb. 22, four days after the Lake County School Board hearing where board members considered banning all clubs rather than allowing a Gay Straight Alliance (GSA).
Watermark Art Director Jake Stevens and I are at Carver Middle School to meet Bayli Silberstein, 14, who has been pushing for the creation of a GSA in response to anti-gay bullying endured by her and her friends. Jake lines Bayli up in front of the sign and gets ready to snap a photo, but before he can press the shutter, we’re interrupted by two badge-wearing school employees who inform us that we can’t be on campus without permission from the School Board.
Bayli rolls her eyes. School administrators have been telling her “no” for more than a year.
“The first time I tried to [start a GSA] I was in 7th grade—it was last year and we had a different principal,” Bayli said. She’s referring to Dave Bordenkircher, who is now principal at Villages Elementary, also in Lake County. Carver Middle School’s current principal is Mollie Cunningham. Bayli says Bordenkircher didn’t give her “much of a reason” for turning down the GSA.
“He said we weren’t allowed to have clubs that weren’t curriculum, which is kind of weird because they had a Christian club and a bowling club and he just kind of said no,” she said.
Bayli’s mom, Erica Silberstein, says that most of Bayli’s friends are a year older than her and she and Bayli’s father actually considered moving her to another school for 8th grade. However, Bayli “insisted on coming back to this school because she was going to start [the GSA] herself.”
“I wanted to still try and fight for [a GSA] because I know I’m not going to be at this school next year, and I think that it would be helpful for the students who don’t have someone to stand up for it,” Bayli said.
In the fall, Baylie and her friends kicked off the effort by gathering signatures on a petition, but Erica says school officials refused to accept it. After Bayli was stonewalled for a few months, Erica emailed the American Civil Liberties Union and the media.
On Jan. 23, the ACLU sent a letter to Lake County School Board attorney Stephen Johnson, demanding the district follow through on the request.
“What came next was a textbook case of cutting off your nose to spite your face,” says ACLU spokesperson Baylor Johnson. “Rather than recognize their legal obligation to let the club form — to say nothing of their moral obligation to let Bayli and her friends try to do something about the bullying they face — the school board is considering banning all clubs just to keep Bayli and her friends from forming a GSA.”
The Board discussed that option in a workshop Feb. 4.
“The position that the members of the school board have taken demonstrates why a GSA is so important at Carver Middle School. GSAs are intended to push for an end to bullying, harassment and discrimination against LGBT students and others,” said Johnson. “If the school board follows through on its decision, it would show that bullying of LGBT students is not just a schoolyard problem, but a culture of discrimination that includes the administration.”
The next discussion was Feb. 18, at a public hearing so crowded with LGBT supporters sporting red shirts that the meeting had to be moved to Tavares High School. Nearly 30 spoke in favor of allowing the GSA, with a few dissenters.
One school board member, Rosanne Brandeburg, even claimed that she felt bullied because of emails she received disagreeing with the Board’s proposed direction on banning clubs and doubted the existence of bullying at Carver Middle School.
“I’m in the schools quite a bit and I don’t see it,” Brandeburg said. “If bullying is happening in schools, please report it.”
This is does not reflect Bayli’s experience.
BULLYING AND BACKLASH
Last school year, Bayli had a girlfriend and she says the students harassed them.
“Even if we’re just, like, hugging to say bye as I’m walking her to her bus, we’d get comments from people on the bus, people walking by,” Bayli said. “It kind of got to her because her parents don’t know [she’s gay], so she didn’t know who she could go to and talk.”
Bayli convinced her to see the school counselor.
“The counselor didn’t seem to react too much,” Bayli said. “She just kind of sat there with a blank expression, had us write it out, took the paper and told us to go to class.”
She also tells stories about two other female students dating, and how students would approach the couple in disbelief that it could be true that they were together. When the girls confirmed it, the students, in front of the couple, would “talk about how that’s
wrong or it’s disgusting.”
Another friend of Bayli’s, a male student who identifies as bisexual, was “one of the few guys at school who was out and every guy at the school seemed to react horribly to that,” Bayli said. He’s moved onto high school, but Bayli said other students still mention him in a negative context.
District spokesman Christopher Patton said he checked with the principal and counselors at Carver Middle School and said that no incident involving Bayli has been reported to officials in the last couple of years.
“If she does have something, we ask her to please report it,” Patton said.
Bayli said a teacher became her sole confident because “every time we submitted something to the school counselor, nothing seemed to happen to the students. They never seemed to get in trouble.”
Now, many students are supportive of Bayli’s battle for a GSA, but she says it didn’t start out that way.
“A lot of them, the first time I was on TV, were just like, ‘That’s such a stupid thing to fight about, I don’t understand why it’s such a big deal.’ “But after they actually watched it or read one of the articles, they understood it better and realized that it does have a point to it; there’s a reason for doing it,” Bayli said. “And it’s really important because of what I saw my friends going through last year.”
The move by the school board to ban all clubs was particularly tough on Bayli, because some students blamed her for threatening the loss of their respective clubs.
“A lot of the students were really mad about that because their clubs are important to them,” she said. “That’s one thing that got to me. Why would [the School Board] cancel all the clubs?”
STRONG FAMILY SUPPORT
Bayli’s father, Victor Cruz, glows with pride as he watches his daughter pose for her Watermark cover photo. He takes a time out from teasing her about “wearing make-up for once” and ribbing Jake for his sweaty shirt (it was a hot and sunny day) to give me a single, concise answer to my inquiries as to how he feels about all this: “I’m just so proud of her.”
Bayli came out to her parents last year.
“I was surprised,” Erica said. “I figured it out right before she told me. I don’t know why I didn’t know.”
The information emerged because Bayli had posted Facebook statuses that made it clear she was seeing someone. Erica was able to deduce that it was another girl.
“I don’t have a problem with it,” Erica said. “It doesn’t matter to me.”
She says Bayli’s day-to-day school life is better now than it was in the beginning of the year, after her friends graduated and school officials ignored her first request for a GSA.
“She doesn’t tell me a whole lot unless I push, but I’ll see posts on her Facebook and that’s how we can tell if it’s been a good day or a bad day,” Erica said.
There used to be a lot of “I hate this school”-type posts, Erica says, but those have died down.
She says she doesn’t worry about Bayli, because she’s tough.
“Bayli, she has a big mouth, and if somebody says something, she’s going to say something back,” she said.
According to Bayli, student support is growing.
“A lot of kids that I don’t even know are coming up to me and saying that I’m really cool and that they look up to me for standing up for this,” she said. “That’s pretty awesome.”
She says she’s also getting great support from her teachers, but “the administrators keep avoiding me. They don’t talk to me at all.”
We at Watermark are calling Bayli the bravest 14-year-old in Florida, but she doesn’t really agree.
“I don’t think it’s really brave. I just think it’s something that should be expected, that a student can stand up for what they believe in,” Bayli said. “Everyone keeps saying that I’m brave or that I’m a hero and I don’t really see it that way.”
Hero or not, the issue is far from over. Patton says there’s at least a 28-day waiting period between School Board hearings, and another hearing is required before there’s a vote. The tentative date for the next hearing is March 11. As of press time, the GSA issue was not on the agenda, which means the earliest possible date for a Board vote would be April.
Bayli is committed to seeing this through to the end, but she says she’s surprised it’s gone this far.
“I didn’t think that they would see it as this big of a deal, the school board and the administrators. I didn’t expect this from adults,” Bayli said. “I thought they could handle this more, but apparently not.”
The ACLU continues to pressure the School Board and a petition supporting the GSA has gathered more than 36,000 signatures.
From our media partners Watermark