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ACLU, GLSEN: Florida’s Lake County School Board plans to ban all student clubs to stop GSA

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News release from ACLU of Florida and GLSEN:

Leesburg, FL - Today, on National Gay-Straight Alliance Day, an annual event to recognize the importance of Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs) in schools and the many benefits these student clubs offer to the school community, a central Florida school board is preparing plans to ban all non-curricular student clubs to prevent the formation of a GSA.

A group of students at Carver Middle School in Lake County, Fla. have tried to establish a GSA, saying the student-led club is needed to address name-calling, bullying and harassment in school. In response to the students request, the Lake County School Board has begun the process of banning every non-curricular club at every school in the district rather than follow their legal obligation to recognize the GSA at Carver Middle School.

“Lots of my friends have been bullied at Carver,” said Bayli Silberstein, the 8th grader who is leading the effort to establish the GSA. “It had gotten really out of hand, and so we have been trying to do something about it.”

Previously, students at Carver Middle School tried to form a GSA during the 2011-2012 school year, but the request was denied by the administration. In November of 2012, Bayli Silberstein and a friend submitted another request to form the GSA with the help of a faculty sponsor, but they received no response. The two then met with the school principal, who said that she needed to consult with the school board. After the new year, frustrated with the unexplained delay, Bayli and her mother Erica Silberstein reached out to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Florida and the Orlando Chapter of Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) for assistance.

“It’s shocking that a school board would go so far to ban a student club designed to provide a safe and affirming space for all students,” said Dr. Eliza Byard, GLSEN’s Executive Director. “Research has consistently shown that GSAs improve school climate and students develop a stronger connection to their school community. By denying access to a GSA, the school board is sending the wrong message that LGBT students are undeserving of the same opportunity to a quality education.”

As pressure mounted on the Lake County School Board to make a decision about approving the formation of a GSA, school board members began the process to create a policy that would ban all non-curricular clubs rather than to allow Bayli and her friends to form a GSA. In a remarkable denial of responsibility for their discriminatory decision, board member Tod Howard stated "I am very concerned that one club would push out the remainder of the clubs that are doing good things.”

GSAs can provide a safe and affirming space for LGBT students and contribute to creating a more welcoming school environment. According to the 2011 GLSEN National School Climate Survey:

•     LGBT students in schools with a GSA heard fewer homophobic remarks than students in schools without GSAs.
•     LGBT students were more likely to report school personnel intervened when hearing homophobic remarks.
•     LGBT students were more likely to experience less victimization related to their sexual orientation and gender expression.
•     LGBT students were less likely to feel unsafe because of their sexual orientation; and had a greater sense of connectedness to their school community than students without a GSA.

“It is shameful that the school board would sacrifice the needs of all students rather than let Bayli and her friends form their club to combat bullying.” stated Daniel Tilley of the ACLU of Florida’s LGBT Rights Project. “The facts are that students are being bullied and harassed at Carver Middle School simply because of who they are, and there is a group of dedicated students who are committed to putting an end to it. Rather than let these kids do the one thing that has helped end bullying in schools all over the country, the Lake County School Board is planning to make the school experience worse for every single student in the district.”

“My daughter and I just want what every parent and child want: a safe school with leaders that listen when there are problems,” said Bayli’s mother, Erica Silberstein. “Bayli and her friends went to the school leaders to tell them there was a bullying problem and that the GSA could help fix it. Instead of listening to my daughter’s needs, the school board wants to sacrifice the needs of all students. They’re not just letting my family down, they’re letting down every parent in the county.”

Since 1998, at least a dozen federal courts have upheld students’ rights to form GSAs at public schools. The ACLU has been involved in nine of those cases, including multiple recent victories for students wishing to establish GSAs in Florida. In 2008, the ACLU of Florida won a similar case on behalf of a GSA in Okeechobee, Florida. The judge ruled that schools must provide for the well-being of gay students and cannot discriminate against the GSA. The Okeechobee County School Board paid $326,000 in attorneys’ fees in that case. In 2009, the ACLU of Florida reached a settlement in a lawsuit against the School Board of Nassau County, in which a judge ordered the district to allow a GSA at Yulee High School to hold meetings. Finally, in 2012, the ACLU of Florida reached a settlement in a lawsuit against the School Board for Marion County; the judge in that case ordered the school to officially recognize the Vanguard High School GSA.

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The actions of the Lake County School Board, to shut all student clubs, in order to avoid giving students in the Gay Straight Alliance the same rights as other is shameful.

More importantly it seems created to encourage bullying and violence against the students with the GSA.

Students in established clubs will be punished by the school board unfairly, in order to deny equal access to the GSA. The school board knows, or should know, that doing this will anger the other students and that young minds will look for someone to blame and to punish. They won't take out their anger on the school board, but on the GSA students.

This measure encourages violence against students. The board should be aware that if GSA students are harassed or attacked as a result, that the board is responsible for these actions. It intentionally created the situation that would encourage the attacks and is thus responsible for them.

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