Thursday, May 2, 2013
One Day After ACLU Initiates Legal Action, Lake County School District Allows Gay-Straight Alliance To Form; Uncertain If Club’s Existence Temporary As District Officials Say They “Are Working To Resolve” Federal Suit
In Florida, one day after the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit against Lake County schools, the district announced a Gay-Straight Alliance club will be allowed to form temporarily and meet at a Leesburg middle school. According to the Orlando Sentinel, the district said Thursday the club can meet at Carver Middle School until the end of the school year, which wraps up in a month. But it remains unclear whether the club will be allowed to continue to meet on campus next school year. "Certainly, the debate of the club is not over," said Daniel Tilley, the ACLU attorney who filed the lawsuit in federal court on Wednesday on behalf of Bayli Silberstein, a 14-year-old bisexual eighth-grader who had been rebuffed when she previously tried to start the club. The suit accused school leaders of violating a federal law prohibiting schools from discriminating against student clubs. District officials said in a statement they're "working to resolve" the federal suit filed by the ACLU and that the action to allow the group to form is the result of a consent order arising from a joint motion of both parties. Superintendent Susan Moxley said the "discussion on this issue has been complex and longer than anticipated" and that "this specific school and student request is being resolved within current laws and guidelines." Tilley said the district's decision is a major victory for Bayli and the other students who fought for the club. "It's very much a win," he said. "It shows to all students that if you work hard and are committed to do something you can accomplish it." Bayli had been working since the 2011-12 school year to establish the club to fight bullying, discrimination and harassment. She said in a statement Thursday: "There's only about a month left of school, but that's still a month we can use to start doing the work to make this school a safer and more welcoming place." No School Board action was required to move ahead with the consent order, district spokesman Chris Patton said. However, School Board member Bill Mathias said he received calls from the School Board's attorney and Moxley and supported the decision. "I think the compromise that was made is fair," he said. He said the school district had a slim chance in defeating the ACLU suit under a current state law that includes middle schools in its definition of "secondary schools," which are protected under the federal Equal Access Act. The law protects secondary schools from discrimination against non-academic clubs. However, lawmakers have approved a bill that removes the definition of "secondary" schools as sixth through 12th grade and does not redefine it. The definition was crucial because the federal law relies on states to determine which secondary grades will be protected. Mathias said it "made no sense to fight a lawsuit" that the district might lose and with only a few weeks of school left. It should be up to principals to decide what clubs should meet on campus, added Mathias, who, along with fellow board member Tod Howard, pressed the state to change the secondary schools definition. Board members now will look at how to revise the district's policy governing clubs. They will meet at 3:30 pm Monday at the Lake Minneola High auditorium, 101 N. Hancock Road. Anyone wishing to comment on the issue will be heard at the meeting, a district spokesman said. About 300 came to a meeting last week expecting to be heard but were turned away. It's unclear what policy changes the School Board may make to the district's club policy, Tilley said. However, he said he plans to continue to work with the students to ensure the Gay-Straight Alliance club continues to meet at Carver in the future. "You can't say what the school district will do," Tilley said. "We will have to wait and see. And we'll act accordingly."