Lake County School District Still Failing to Protect LGBT Students & Their Allies

Bayli Silberstein
Bayli Silberstein

Even after an embarrassing and costly legal defeat this past spring in a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, the Lake County School District still hasn’t adopted a forward-looking policy to protect the equal rights and safety of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students and their allies.

The district’s school board was expected this week to address a proposed policy affecting the right of middle school students to form gay-straight alliances (GSAs). Instead, the board yet again delayed action. The board will (supposedly) raise the issue at an August meeting before the new school year begins.

Indecision, Circumvention, Confusion & Resistance to Protecting LGBT Youth

Other Youth Allies posts (see below) have explored Lake County’s GSA saga in detail. The gist of it is this: Beginning in early 2012, Lake County middle school student Bayli Silberstien (pictured above) repeatedly sought permission to form a GSA. After an initial denial, a school administrator referred Bayli’s request to the school board, which refused to take action at several meetings, effectively blocking the club. In May of this year, the ACLU of Florida filed a lawsuit on Bayli’s behalf, alleging (correctly) that the board’s refusal to allow the club violated Bayli’s rights under the federal Equal Access Act and the Constitution. The very next day, the district agreed to allow the GSA (temporarily, at least). The district even consented to a federal court order requiring that it grant the GSA official recognition without discrimination. It later agreed to pay thousands of dollars in attorneys’ fees and costs to the ACLU. (During this ordeal, members of the school board sent outrageous emails about the controversy to me and to another blogger, Katy Bourne. See below for links to my commentary on those emails.)

Bill Mathias
Lake County School Board member Bill Mathias

Even after all of that, however, the controversy continues, in part because the court order in favor of the GSA came with an expiration date: It ceased to have effect when Bayli graduated from middle school last month. With Bayli now headed to high school (where the district allows GSAs), the school board is considering a vague new policy that might again prevent middle school students in the district from forming GSAs. The proposed policy, which has already gotten a preliminary thumbs-up from the board, would allow middle-school extracurricular clubs only if they “strengthen and promote critical thinking, business skills, athletic skills, [or] [visual or] performing arts.” Academic clubs would also be permitted.

Would a GSA satisfy the new requirements? It depends whom you ask. After the board gave preliminary approval to the proposal in May, the Orlando Sentinel observed that the new policy would make it “even more unclear” whether a GSA could form (or continue to meet) at a middle school; the paper also noted disagreement among some important players:

School Board attorney Steve Johnson contends that the middle school gay-straight club “does not fit” the [proposal’s] criteria, while board member [Bill] Mathias — who opposed the middle school club — believes it could. School district spokesman Chris Patton said whether the club is allowed under the new rules would be “based on their application.”

To make matters worse, the proposed policy is probably illegal under both the federal Equal Access Act and the First Amendment. (Some school board members appear to think that a recent change in state law makes it more likely that they can now get away with banning the GSA. For reasons explained in a post from this spring, I believe they are seriously mistaken.) And if a middle school administrator relies on the policy to block a GSA in the next school year, the ACLU says it may sue. Again. And if it does, it will likely win. Again.

To resolve this issue in a way that best protects its students’ safety and freedom of expression (and that prevents additional harm to the district’s budget and credibility), the school board needs to stop dragging its feet and promptly address the GSA issue (again) at a board meeting; it must reject the vague and likely unlawful proposal currently under consideration, and enact a policy that bars administrators from censoring or discriminating against students who wish to form a GSA.

And It’s Not Just the GSA

Finally, the school district should also update its anti-discrimination and anti-bullying policies. As I argued in another post (in which I responded to, among other things, a board member’s claim that there was a “very real possibility” that anti-gay hate groups would form in the district’s middle schools),

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 [the school board] 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.

The ongoing delay on these issues is an insult to the district’s LGBT youth, and to their friends, families, and other allies.


*Bill Mathias photo from the Lake County School District website.

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