Exclusive Report: After School Board Blocks Gay-Straight Alliance, Board Member Tells LGBT Youth Allies, “The Board Has Not Blocked the GSA.”

Posted by MK on Apr 29, 2013 @ 9:51 am
Lake County on Map in Blue

Though Florida’s Lake County School Board has effectively blocked a proposed gay-straight alliance (GSA) at a local middle school, a member of the Board tells me that “[t]he board has not blocked the GSA.”

The denial is only one of several perplexing statements made by the Board member in a series of three emails sent to me late last week. (Though the Board member consented to the disclosure of his name and emails, I’m not revealing his identity in this post. I’ll refer to him instead as “S.B.M.” or “School Board Member.” See below to learn more about that.)

Click here or scroll to the end of the page for a complete list of Youth Allies posts related to Lake County (last updated February 2014).

Bayli Silberstein made this video when the Lake County School Board was considering banning all middle-school extracurricular clubs to stop her GSA from forming. The Board has dropped that proposal (for now at least) but has still not authorized the GSA.

While the proposed GSA has stood at the forefront of a nationally publicized controversy in the Lake County School District, S.B.M. now makes the implausible claim that the GSA has only had “minimal influence” in the Board’s discussions. His emails also refer inexplicably to his “religious background,” accuse an Orlando Sentinel reporter of bias, and express concern over the supposedly “very real possibility” that middle school students in the district may try to form “an anti-gay hate group.” He criticizes LGBT Youth Allies’ coverage of the controversy, saying that an article posted on this website last Thursday “deepens the misunderstanding of the situation.”

Copies of my email exchange with S.B.M. are available at the end of this post.

S.B.M.’s emails misrepresent the most basic facts and devote excessive attention to minor or irrelevant issues. I stand by my earlier post, and I continue to believe that the Lake County School Board is failing in its duty to protect and respect all of its students.

False Assumptions?

Lake County in red on map

Lake County appears in red.

On Thursday morning, I sent an email to Lake County School Board members, providing them with a link to an article I had just posted on this website. The article commented on the controversy over a GSA proposed by Bayli Silberstein, an eighth grader at Carver Middle School in the Lake County School District. My article argued that the Lake County School Board can and should allow Bayli’s proposed GSA, and that the law probably required the Board to do so.

Though the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida has advocated aggressively for Bayli’s rights, the School Board has so far refused to take action authorizing the club. The repeated delays effectively thwart the club’s formation.

Late Thursday afternoon, S.B.M. responded to my email, complaining that my article was based “on false assumptions.” He advised that “[i]t would be wise to actually listen to what is being said in the board meetings.” I quickly replied, thanking him for reading my piece. I also invited him to inform me if “my piece unfairly characterized or represented any factual matters.”

Raising Irrelevant Issues & Misusing GLSEN Materials

S.B.M. wrote again within an hour. His email begins:

How many interviews did you see where I gave a quote? Very few, the press has not asked questions. I refuse to communicate with Erica Rodriguez of the Orlando Sentinel because of the bias in her reporting.

I’m not sure if S.B.M. is saying that reporters (other than Ms. Rodriguez) should ask the Board more questions, but to the extent he is willing to give interviews, I encourage him to do so. As for Ms. Rodriguez, I haven’t detected any bias in her articles, but readers can judge for themselves by clicking, for example, here or here. S.B.M. didn’t specify any facts that Ms. Rodriguez might have misreported.

S.B.M.’s email continues:

Ask yourself and others around you:
What is [S.B.M.’s] religious background?
What is [S.B.M.’s] view of religion and schools?
What are [S.B.M.’s] SPECIFIC concerns of the club policy?
What personal relationships does [S.B.M.] have with LBGT individuals?
What is [S.B.M.’s] position on the gay rights issues the nation is facing?
If you can not answer these simple questions, then you may want to question yourself; who is prejudging whom?!

I don’t get what S.B.M. is trying to convey here. Almost none of what he says in this excerpt has any bearing on whether the Lake County School Board should allow or prohibit a gay-straight alliance at Carver Middle School, which is the only issue that I thought we were discussing. His “religious background” is, of course, a personal matter that seems particularly irrelevant; I have no idea why he mentions it.

Of his six rhetorical questions, only one seems relevant: “What are [S.B.M.’s] SPECIFIC concerns of the club policy?” I’ll get to that shortly. First, let’s look at the next part of his email, in which he assigns me some homework:

Google these sites
-GLSEN curriculum- it is split in to age appropriate sections. Is that to[o] much to ask for? I do not believe so and that has been the crux of my position from the start.
-Common Sense Media- it is a well respected guide for age appropriate material. Look specifically at the recommendations by age.
-Southern Poverty Law Center- take a look at the 59 hate groups in Florida. How would you write the policy to ensure middle school students are protected from them.

S.B.M.’s main point with respect to the GLSEN and Common Sense Media materials appears to be that schools can reasonably treat middle school students differently from how they treat high school students. His argument, however, suffers from some fatal flaws.

First of all, S.B.M. has engaged in an egregious misuse of GLSEN materials by citing them to justify restrictions on a GSA. GLSEN has not only conducted extensive research demonstrating the importance of GSAs in both middle schools and high schools as a general matter, but it has cited that research to urge the Lake County School Board to allow Bayli’s GSA. Commenting specifically on the Lake County School District, GLSEN’s Executive Director Dr. Eliza Byard noted that “[r]esearch has consistently shown that GSAs improve school climate” and help “students develop a stronger connection to their school community.” She added: “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.”

More generally, S.B.M.’s curriculum-focused argument ignores the crucial distinction between a school district’s speech (which consists mostly of its curricula) and students’ speech. These are fundamentally different issues, both practically and legally. The debate over the Carver Middle School GSA is not about curricula, but about students’ right to speak outside of class (and to engage in other expressive activities, like forming a club). And as my post last Thursday explained, the Supreme Court has long recognized that public schools, including middle schools, must respect students’ freedom of expression. The fact that GLSEN and Common Sense Media do not propose identical lesson plans for fifth and eleventh graders is beside the point.

Images of youth on cover of GLSEN's Educator's Guide

The curriculum materials available through GLSEN’s website include the ThinkB4YouSpeak Educator’s Guide for Discussing and Addressing Anti-Gay Language among Teens

To be clear, I’m not criticizing GLSEN’s excellent curriculum materials. Indeed, I hope that Lake County integrates those materials into its curricula for all grade levels. And I hope S.B.M. would support that proposal. At a bare minimum, however, to the extent he relies on those curriculum materials in shaping policy, he must keep in mind that their purpose is to support the inclusion of LGBT-supportive messages in curricula used by teachers, not to justify the suppression of LGBT-supportive student expression in extracurricular activities. It is stunning that he has so far failed to draw any of these distinctions.

S.B.M. needs to draw these same distinctions, of course, when it comes to other curriculum guides, including those from Common Sense Media. Incidentally, while I’m less familiar with Common Sense Media, I liked much of what I saw on its website over the weekend. Nothing I found, unsurprisingly, justifies restrictions on LGBT-inclusive student expression in extracurricular activities. And at least some of its curriculum guides could be of use to Lake County schools, especially since students have reported problems with anti-LGBT bullying. For example, in one lesson plan available through its website, middle schoolers are asked to question gender stereotypes. A separate middle-school lesson plan teaches about cyberbullying, which the plan defines to include “[s]aying something mean about someone based on their race, gender, ability, religion, or sexual orientation.”

One final point on S.B.M.’s curriculum-related argument: If I’m interpreting his somewhat cryptic statements correctly, he is particularly concerned about ensuring that middle school clubs are “age appropriate.” There’s nothing remotely age-inappropriate, however, about a middle-school GSA. As my post last Thursday discussed at length, GSAs exist to address bullying, harassment, and discrimination that affect youth of every age (and their families). Though some GSA opponents claim that GSAs inappropriately discuss sexual activity, this sex-focused fear-mongering is divorced from reality, as courts have recognized. Again, it’s in my Thursday post.

Hate Groups on Lake County Campuses?

Image of Southern Poverty Law Center Report

The Southern Poverty Law Center, which S.B.M. cites in an email, regularly reports on hate groups. S.B.M. claims that Lake County students may try to form a hate group in the district.

As for S.B.M.’s statement about “the 59 hate groups in Florida,” his argument appears to be that the Board cannot allow a GSA now because of the possibility that other middle school students will in the future want to form a hate group. He reiterates this concern in his third email, warning of the “very real possibility” that students will want to form “an anti-gay hate group.”

I would first remind S.B.M. that denying a safe and supportive extra-curricular club to Bayli and her allies inflicts real harm on actual Lake County students now. To inflict that harm merely because Board members fear a hypothetical future problem that may never materialize adds insult to a very real injury. It’s also legally problematic: Courts will not likely condone ongoing violations of students’ rights based on speculations about non-existent problems.

Perhaps S.B.M. would say that I’m underestimating the risk of Lake County students’ trying to form a hate group. Certainly he knows his district better than I do, and maybe the risk is greater there than it has been in the thousands of schools across the country that have already allowed GSAs without a problem.

Still, that wouldn’t explain why the Board is obstructing the GSA now. In other words, there is no practical or legal reason why the Board can’t, at a bare minimum, give interim approval to the GSA while it “workshops” the (supposed) problem of student hate groups.

In any event, as the School Board’s attorney can explain to S.B.M. in more detail, the school district would surely stand on solid legal ground if it allowed a GSA but still refused to recognize an actual hate group on campus. The law allows schools to limit students’ expressive activity where there are facts reasonably indicating that the expression would cause a substantial disruption to the school. While courts have repeatedly rejected attempts to censor LGBT-supportive speech under this standard, they have given schools leeway to address hateful speech and harassment. Indeed, schools can sometimes be held legally liable if they condone anti-gay student-on-student harassment. In contrast, they won’t be held liable for allowing students to more effectively plead for tolerance.

Finally, if S.B.M. thinks that the climate in the district’s middle schools is so hostile that students might try to form hate groups, shouldn’t he be working aggressively to deal with that frightening crisis? Has he done so? Has he, for example, called on administrators to implement or improve LGBT-inclusive anti-bullying programs and curricula? Perhaps he has; if so, I encourage him to make his work on that front more visible. If he hasn’t, I suggest that he start.

The Board Member’s Final Denials

S.B.M.’s second email concludes by insisting that the real issue is not the GSA at all. He criticizes the “many folks” who have “creat[ed] the illusion of an anti-gay boogie man,” and tells me that my “opinion article only deepens the misunderstanding of the situation.”

My final email to S.B.M. frankly doesn’t say much of interest (readers can access it below), though I do politely prod S.B.M. to clarify whether there were “factual errors” in my original email, since his first email accused me of basing my opinion on “false assumptions.” My email also asks that he clarify the answer to his one relevant rhetorical question, that is, “What are [S.B.M.’s] SPECIFIC concerns of the club policy?”

S.B.M. responded again that evening. This final email from him again mentions the risk of a hate group; he also refers again to the GLSEN and Common Sense Media materials in an effort to justify the Board’s view “that there should be some common sense control of the depth of material the GSA is able to present to middle schoolers.” I’ve addressed these issues above and in my Thursday post.

This news report (like others) doesn’t quite state the legal issues correctly, but it otherwise provides decent coverage. It’s difficult to believe, after watching a video like this (and there are many), that the GSA has played only a “minimal” role in the Board’s policy debate, as S.B.M. claims.

S.B.M.’s final email also contain his most misleading statements, including the claim that “[t]he board has not blocked the GSA.” I’m not sure what to make of this assertion: Perhaps S.B.M.’s point is that even though the Board has not authorized the club, it has not yet definitively adopted a rule that would forever prevent a GSA from forming. This hair-splitting is cold comfort to the students who cannot form their GSA until the Board takes action. Last Monday, after several months of delay, the Board had an opportunity to end the obstruction and allow the club to get started. Instead, the Board not only refused to authorize the club, but it initiated a process that will likely lead to more significant delay before the issue even gets a vote. By any reasonable standard, therefore, the Board has “blocked” the GSA.

S.B.M. also claims in his last email that “the GSA has had minimal influence” on the Board’s club-policy debate. Nothing I’ve found in the extensive reporting of the controversy supports this account of the facts. According to one report about the Board meeting last Monday, for example, at least two of five school board members have suggested that “middle-school children were too young to be discussing gay-straight issues.” Reports also indicate that supporters and opponents of the GSA have flooded the meetings, with about 400 people showing up last Monday alone. Unless S.B.M. and his colleagues are completely ignoring the sustained, intense interest shown by the media and the public in the GSA issue (which seems unlikely, evidently), it seems fair to assume that the GSA has played more than a “minimal” role in the Board’s discussions.

In response to my request that he point to factual errors in my Thursday post, S.B.M.’s last email claims that I was inaccurate when I accused the board of focusing excessively on the technicalities of state statutes rather than the well-being of the district’s students. “To state we are hypersensitive to the technical aspect of the legislation is inaccurate,” he writes. But this is wrong too: Media reports indicate that at least two members of the school board lobbied the state legislature to make the legislative changes at issue. (For information on the relevance of that legislation, see my Thursday post.)

S.B.M.’s final email also claims that “[n]o one on the board said students should avoid discussions of sexual orientation or gender identity.” This appears at odds with media reports, though I certainly hope S.B.M.’s new representation of the Board’s position is accurate.

And Even if I’m Wrong…

Imagine for a moment that the real issue here is not, in fact, the GSA. Imagine that S.B.M. is right that people have created the false impression of an “anti-gay boogie man,” and that the GSA truly has had “minimal influence” in the Board’s discussions.

Does this let the Board off the hook?

No.

Regardless of what S.B.M. thinks or claims the real issue is, the community certainly believes that the dispute centers on the GSA, and this sends a terrifying message to many of the district’s students, especially LGBT students. Any reasonable person reading the newspaper will quickly get the sense that the School Board is determined to prevent LGBT students and their allies from forming a club at the middle school. Young LGBT people may fear for their safety, or at least not feel welcome in their school.

The Board needs to do something about that. Now.

It can start by issuing or re-issuing statements that strongly condemn discrimination, harassment and bullying based on sexual orientation and gender identity, and that express support for the district’s LGBT youth. It can also consider implementing more curricular materials to address anti-LGBT bias. GLSEN, which S.B.M. is fond of citing, can surely provide some resources.

The board should also consider expanding some of its anti-discrimination and anti-bullying policies. For example, its policy on Student Bullying and Other Forms of Aggression currently mentions “sexual, religious, or racial harassment,” but it does not explicitly address bullying or harassment based on other traits, like “disability,” “sexual orientation” or “gender identity.” This is a shocking omission for a school board that sees anti-gay hate groups as a “very real possibility” in the district’s schools.

Florida’s Department of Education can provide S.B.M. and his colleagues with guidance for creating more inclusive policies. For example, the Department’s website provides links to “Sample(s) of approved District Policies,” including a policy from Broward that expressly enumerates “sexual orientation” and “gender identity,” among other factors.

Ideally, of course, the district will also quickly approve Bayli’s GSA. Even where administrators take a proactive role in combating anti-LGBT bullying and harassment, students benefit from the safe space that GSAs provide.

Like so many others who have raised their voice in this matter, I call on S.B.M. and the rest of the Lake County School Board to do the right thing for Lake County students, and to do so immediately.

MK

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*Nothing in this post, or anywhere else on this website, constitutes legal advice. See our Disclaimers for more information.

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Additional Information

School Board Member’s Identity
  • This post uses male pronouns such as “he,” “him,” and “his” when referring to S.B.M. I do this for the sake of simplicity in writing, and not because I intend to communicate anything about his gender or sex. S.B.M. may or may not be male.
  • S.B.M. unambiguously provided his consent for me to reveal his identity and the content of his emails: His emails to me included the statement that pursuant to Florida law, “written communications to or from Lake School District employees are considered public records.” However, I am not expressly disclosing his identity in this post, in part because the purpose of my post is to focus on the School Board as a government entity, and on S.B.M. as a publicly elected official, and not to focus on S.B.M. as an individual. It is of course, quite possible that some readers will be able to discern his identity using some of the information this post provides. Though I do not wish to facilitate that, I have no objection to it, given that S.B.M. consented to the public revelation of his emails, which are a matter of public record, as noted above. Particularly in light of S.B.M.’s consent, public revelation of S.B.M.’s identity would be fully consistent with this website’s privacy policy as it has existed at all relevant times.

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Emails with the Lake County School Board Member

While I have redacted my email address in the documents above, readers may contact LGBT Youth Allies using our contact form. And while I’ve redacted the Lake County School Board members’ email addresses from the documents to which I link above, those addresses are readily available on-line through the Lake County school district’s website.

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Complete List of Youth Allies Posts Related to Lake County’s GSA Controversy (Updated February 2014)

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