Lake County School Board postpones GSA discussion… again

By : Jamie Hyman and Susan Clary
Comments: 8

Once again, the Lake County School Board has delayed its decision on the future of clubs – including a much-debated Gay Straight Alliance at Carver Middle School – for the 2013-2014 school year. A July 8 date was advertised, but now the board says that was a mistake and the meeting is now set for August 12, just a week before August 19, the first day of school.

The American Civil Liberties Union says Lake County schools must allow GSAs because middle schools have other non-academic clubs.

In mid-May, the board voted to allow elementary schools to have school-sponsored clubs with parental consent, but student-created clubs would not be permitted. For high schools, the board voted students could create clubs with the superintendant’s approval.

But the board argued about what to do for middle schools, finally voting to limit clubs to organizations that can “strengthen and promote critical thinking, business skills, athletic skills and performing arts.”

It is unclear whether the GSA club charter could meet those application requirements. Superintendent Susan Moxley, who approves the applications, has expressed her desire to keep GSAs out of middle schools.

The board needed to advertise its preliminary decision for 28 days before a final reading date was set. The follow-up meeting was scheduled for June 24, then moved to July 8 and now set for the new August date.

The battle for the GSA 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 and the parties in the case entered into a consent decree allowing Silberstein to form the club for the remainder of the school year. That agreement has, of course, expired.

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