GSA supporters left with uncertainty following Lake County School Board vote

By : Staff Report
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Tavares – With less than a week before students return to classes, the Lake County School Board had its second and final vote August 12 to put an end to the Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) saga, for now.

The board voted 3-to-1 to only allow clubs in middle schools that “promote business, athletics, fine arts or critical thinking.” It is unclear whether GSAs could meet the criteria. The Superintendent would be the final arbiter.

For supporters of GSAs, it was a defeat but not unexpected. The board initially voted 4-to-1 in May to put the new criteria in place. After nearly a year of back and forth, the item was finally placed on the agenda for the final vote.

The club controversy began in November 2012 when Bayli Silberstein, then a 14-year old student at Carver Middle School in Leesburg, applied to create a GSA. The district ignored her application.

Two months later, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Florida sent a letter to Lake County School Board Attorney Stephen Johnson demanding action. The club, it said, “confronted bullying, educated the school community, promoted acceptance and equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students.”

Instead of considering Silberstein’s application, the board proposed a plan to ban all non-curricular student clubs rather than allow GSA. In March, with the threat of litigation looming, the board reversed itself and voted 3-to-2 in favor of non-curricular clubs. It would have paved the way for GSA, but a month later the decision was tabled. It became clear what caused the delay.

Two of Lake County’s School Board members, Tod Howard and Bill Mathias, had been lobbying the Florida Legislature in Tallahassee to change state law. Their efforts were successful. Gov. Rick Scott signed Senate Bill 1076, which went into effect July 1. It potentially no longer requires middle schools to adhere to the federal Equal Access Act. It will have to be challenged.

In May, the ACLU of Florida filed a lawsuit claiming the School Board, District Superintendant and Principal of Carver Middle School violated Silberstein’s rights under the Equal Access Act and the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. A day later, the School Board entered into a consent decree to allow Silberstein to form the club for the remainder of the 2012-2013 school year.

Silberstein will enter Leesburg High School on August 19 and said she plans to form a GSA there. During its final decision on middle schools, the School Board also approved the formation of non-curricular clubs in high schools, with the Superintendent’s approval. High schools will not have to meet the same strict criteria required of middle schools. Elementary schools are only permitted to have school-sponsored clubs and students must receive parental consent to participate.

Superintendent Susan Moxley, who approves the applications, has expressed her desire to keep GSAs out of middle schools.

The club vote was overshadowed at the meeting by protests from parents over the board’s decision to cut courtesy busing for 4,300 students, who live within two miles of their home schools. Angry parents filled the chambers to express concern that students will be forced to walk dangerous routes with no sidewalks.

The ACLU of Florida said it will continue to watch closely the issue of GSAs in Lake County Schools and will consider representation of students who face push-back from school officials who ignore their applications or refuse their formation.

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