Ocala, Fla. – The court hearing for a Gay-Straight Alliance at Carver Middle school ended in the late afternoon March 3. A ruling isn’t expected until after April 1 after all court filings have been submitted.
The hearing was a two-day trial at the U.S. District Court of the Middle District of Florida in Ocala, Fla.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida filed a lawsuit on behalf of Hannah Faughnan, a 14-year-old eighth grader at Carver Middle, and the students of the GSA at Carver Middle against the Lake County School Board in December 2013. They are suing on counts of equal access and First Amendment Rights. Daniel Tilley, of ACLU Florida, is the lead counsel for the case.
“I think we made a strong showing,” Tilley said. “The judge acknowledged it was an important case and that it was well-tried, and we are going to keep doing the best that we can.”
On March 2, the ACLU presented its case to the court, while on March 3 the defense presented their case. There was no ruling made at the end of the hearing. Both parties will have the opportunity to submit post-trial filings: ACLU before March 18 and Lake County School Board before April 1.
“Litigation sometime takes a long time, but the reality is the school board at any time can allow the club—it’s the fact it didn’t have to be this way, that they have put up so many roadblocks all along the way to do whatever they can to prevent this club from meeting,” Tilley said.
U.S. District Judge William Terrell Hodges is proceeding over the trial. He questioned if the case could even hold up in federal court, because Faughnan didn’t resubmit and application for the club for the current academic year. Hodges said the case will proceed but this will be taken into consideration and addressed later.
This is the second lawsuit over a GSA at Carver Middle School. In November of 2012, then-14-year-old Bayli Silberstein requested permission to start a GSA at Carver Middle. After months of legal wrangling and school board meeting debates, a judge granted Silberstein permission to form the club for the remainder of her eighth grade year, which ended in the summer of 2013. That settlement has expired, Bayli has moved onto high school and now, the GSA no longer meets at Carver Middle School. The club was not approved when Faughnan reapplied, and she wasn’t given a reason as to how to improve upon her application.
“If we win, I really hope to have the club so that we can focus on what we want to accomplish with the student body because the GSA may change every year, depending on who’s in it and who’s involved,” Faughnan said.
Silberstein, now 16 and in high school, was a witness for the ACLU’s case March 2. She talked about what happened when she was at Carver and what happened once Hannah took over.
“It’s crazy. It shouldn’t have gone this far, it shouldn’t have been this hard. But I am proud of Hannah for taking over for it, and I’m extremely thankful that she cares about it as much as I did,” Silberstein said. “It’s equal rights. Everyone deserves to be safe in their own school, and they’re children. We’re all children and we deserve to get an education without fearing of other students. It wasn’t fair, and we need to make it right.”
In addition to Silberstein and Faughnan, the ACLU called Lake County Schools’ Superintendent Dr. Susan Moxley to the stand March 2.
Tilley questioned Moxley on the changed school board policy 4.502, which determines what can or cannot be a school club. He also addressed how the school board only seems to address bullying by the use of disciplinary action and education. The ACLU legal cited the application and club’s charter into evidence and questioned how it didn’t fit the criteria to be a club at Carver Middle.
“We will be making some post-trial filings explaining to the court and Judge Hodges what we would like him to include in his judgment in the order that he issues,” Tilley said.
Faughnan was nervous when she took to the stand March 2, but hopeful that there will be a positive outcome for the GSA at Carver Middle.
“[Bullying] is a growing issue, and the GSA is there to support everybody,” Faughnan said. “No matter what you—your race, ethnicity and anything like that. It’s not just whether you’re gay or straight. So by anyone being able to come in there and talk to anybody else like equals, just as it should be, we can move forward as one unit, not as a group of many different people with many different opinions.”
From our media partner Watermark