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To Combat Bullying, Middle School Student Wants Gay-Straight Alliance, But Officials Balk

| January 23, 2013

They can dream, can't they? (jglsongs)

They can dream, can’t they? (jglsongs)

Update: on May 30, 2013, U.S. District Judge Anne Conway issued a final order in the case of 14-year-old Bayli Silberstein of Leesburg, Florida who brought a lawsuit against the School Board of Lake County for repeatedly thwarting her efforts to establish a gay-straight alliance (GSA) at Carver Middle School. The final order reinforces a consent decree entered by the parties in the case on the day after the lawsuit was filed that allows the club to meet and awards Bayli one dollar in nominal damages. Bayli was represented in the case by the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida.

The ACLU of Florida intervened today on behalf of a  Lake County middle-school student leader seeking to establish a gay-straight alliance (GSA) at Carver Middle  School in Leesburg. The eighth grader spearheading the effort, Bayli Silberstein, says the club is needed to combat bullying at her school, but has faced administrative resistance in trying to establish it.

“The bullying at our school has gotten out of hand, and somebody needs to do something about it,” stated Bayli.

Flagler County school officials Tuesday evening were part of a town hall on bullying, hosted by Orlando’s Channel 13, as various strategies about reporting and combating bullying were discussed. The forum, held in the commission chamber at the Government Services Building, drew about two dozen people and focused more on definitions of bullying and legal remedies rather than some of the sources of bullying, which can be more difficult for school officials to pin down than for parents or students to complain of. (The district is hosting its own forum on bullying at the Flagler Auditorium, at 6:30 p.m., on Jan. 30.)

Flagler County isn’t foreign to the bullying of lesbian or gay students, though the most recent public case of bullying involved the actions of a teacher toward a student, rather than one student against another. The case led to an apology by the teacher. The 2011 case, spurred on by the Florida ACLU, also prompted the Flagler County School Board to add protections for “sexual orientation” and “gender identity or expression” to the Student Code of Conduct and the school district’s bullying and harassment policy. The Volusia County School Board similarly amended its policy soon afterward. Flagler Palm Coast High School has a gay-straight alliance, but the district’s two middle schools do not.

Students at Leesburg’s Carver Middle School had tried to form a GSA during the previous school year, and even included in the packet of materials submitted to the school a list of situations in which they had faced bullying that year. The principal at the time, however – David Bordenkircher – denied the request outright. Although many of Bayli’s friends that year were in eighth grade and therefore went on to high school, Bayli was left at Carver Middle.

In November, she submitted another packet of materials with the help of a faculty sponsor. They received no response. Bayli and a friend were able to meet with the new principal, Mollie Cunningham, who acknowledged the potential utility of the club but indicated that she needed to consult with the school board. No movement was made on the issue in 2012. After the new year, frustrated with the unexplained delay, Bayli and her mother Erica Silberstein reached out to the ACLU of Florida.

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“As a parent, it was a struggle to hear about some of the things that were going on at my daughter’s school,” Erica Silberstein said. “The kids were asking for a support system, but the school didn’t seem very invested in the idea.”

Daniel Tilley, an LGBT-rights advocate with the ACLU of Florida, echoed Erica’s concerns: “The fact that the school has not allowed the GSA to form reflects the very reason why such clubs are so needed. If the school administrators themselves are unwilling to support the very people they are charged with protecting, it is unfortunately unsurprising that students’ peers are no better.”

Because of the school’s continued delay in responding to Bayli’s request to form the club, ACLU of Florida Legal Director Randall Marshall sent a letter today to the superintendent and school-board attorney apprising them of their legal obligations under both the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the Equal Access Act to allow the club to form. The letter also noted the recent successful legal challenges brought by the ACLU of Florida on behalf of students who sought to establish GSAs and were met with administrative resistance. No such resistance greets the formation of such groups as the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, for example, even though the fellowship is an explicitly Christian organization.

“Under the Equal Access Act,” the letter reads, “schools may not pick and choose among clubs based on what they think students should or should not discuss. If a public school allows any student group whose purpose is not directly related to the school’s curriculum to meet on school grounds during lunch or before or after school, then it cannot deny other student groups the same access to the school because of the content of their proposed discussions. The Act specifically provides that a school cannot deny equal access to student clubs because of the ‘religious, political, philosophical, or other content of the speech at such meetings.'” (The full letter appears below.)

GSAs are student organizations made up of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) students, along with their straight allies, who advocate for an end to bullying, harassment, and discrimination against LGBT students and others.  A 2009 survey by the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education network found that “84.6 percent of LGBT students reported being verbally harassed, 40.1 percent reported being physically harassed and 18.8 percent reported being physically assaulted at school in the past year because of their sexual orientation.”

The bullying can, ironically, can have Christian teachings as its source, its inspiration or its justification, especially in the South, as some churches still consider gay and lesbian lifestyles sinful, inadmissible, unnatural, or all three. While schools routinely and implicitly endorse Christian messages or beliefs (Tuesday evening, John Fischer, a Flagler County School Board member, spent part of his time during the board meeting advocating for bringing back prayer in schools), explicit defenses of LGBT students are rare, often leaving the task to advocates beyond the schools.

The ACLU of Florida has succeeded numerous times in recent years in helping students form GSAs at their schools. In 2008, the ACLU of Florida won a similar case on behalf of a GSA in Okeechobee, Florida. The judge ruled that schools must provide for the well-being of gay students and cannot discriminate against the GSA. The Okeechobee County School Board paid $326,000 in attorneys’ fees in that case. In 2009, the ACLU of Florida reached a settlement in a lawsuit against the School Board of Nassau County in following a preliminary injunction by a federal judge against the school board. In 2012, the ACLU of Florida reached a settlement in a lawsuit against the School Board for Marion County; the judge in that case ordered the school to officially recognize the Vanguard High School GSA.

Finally, in January 2013, the ACLU of Florida succeeded in helping the students at Booker T. Washington High School in Escambia County form a GSA after students’ initial efforts were rebuffed by school administrators.

“The Board Members may be uncomfortable about students discussing sexual orientation and how all students need to accept each other, whether gay or straight,” one federal judge wrote in one such ruling, but school officials “cannot censor the students’ speech to avoid discussions on campus that cause them discomfort or represent an unpopular viewpoint.”

ACLU of Florida Letter to Lake County School Superintendent Susan Moxley

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10 Responses for “To Combat Bullying, Middle School Student Wants Gay-Straight Alliance, But Officials Balk”

  1. Merrill says:

    What our country needs to be successful is more Bayli Silbersteins. Only when there are enough Baulks will each of us be able to sit under our vines and fig trees and none shall make us afraid! Lake County Schools: your Bibles are calling you! You need to learn to “Love one another!”

  2. Alex says:

    If my son is bullied, can I hire a personal guard for protection?

  3. Sad Times says:

    Such a shame that the students make more common sense than do the adults!!!! What ever has happened to the rights of ALL Americans???

    What is the matter with people who feel that THEY are in the right… and the OTHERS are not? Who made them God?!!! Who made them the judge and jury about right and wrong? Why do the OTHERS have to bend to THEIR morals and beliefs? The OTHERS are not asking THEM to believe the OTHERS way…. The OTHERS are just asking for their inalienable rights… as defined by our Constitution. Quite simple, really.

    • Magnolia says:

      If your child is acting out gay in middle school, he’s got more problems than you think. This is MIDDLE SCHOOL, for crying out loud.

      Is there no place to escape somebodies political agenda???!

  4. Magnolia says:

    I think most parents would rather the schools be allowed to send these bullies home or to a Juvenile detention center. You cannot force people to accept your beliefs. That’s just as offensive.

    Stop singling people out as “special”. As long as you try to do that, we will never be equal.

    Bullies shouldn’t be allowed to get away with this behavior anymore than a gay straight alliance in middle school. This is why our children are failing. They are not learning anything. That is what school is for. All other activities need to be suspended until this country has its feet back on strong footing.

    The political agenda of this administration is suffocating us all and making a mess of our kids.

    • Nancy N. says:

      So it’s alright for kids to “act out straight” in middle school but not express other natural human sexual orientation? I thought you wanted to stop singling people out as being special? What’s so special about the straight kids? Oh wait, I know…your bible says they are. Well guess what? I don’t read that book and the constitution says that you can’t impose its teachings on everyone in public school. You want to discriminate, do it on your own time and in your own home.

      Being gay isn’t a “political agenda”. It’s a human condition, a naturally occurring state of humanity just like skin color and gender. At one time, equality for those groups was called a “political agenda” that would destroy our country too…now it’s just a basic right, and the sky hasn’t fallen.

      Do I wish that we could live in a utopia where we didn’t have to single discriminated groups out for protection and awareness advancement? Of course. But we don’t live in utopia. We live in a society that is rife with discrimination, where within my lifetime it was legal to fire a woman for being pregnant or getting married, where handicapped people were denied access to services and employment, where the KKK was a driving force in local governments. Hate crimes are all over the news. We have to have laws to protect people until we can raise enough of our children and our children’s children RIGHT to eradicate that hate and then the laws will no longer be needed.

  5. Nancy N. says:

    It’s nice to know that our schools and our kids are in crisis and Mr Fischer apparently has no better way to spend the school board’s time than advocating for actions on the part of the board that are illegal, unconstitutional and discriminatory. How can our school board be role models for the rest of the community when part of their meeting was spent engaging in speech that was essentially advocating institutionalized bullying of people who don’t believe the way Mr Fischer does?

  6. Dorene Davenport says:

    It sickens me to read 3 years later that Flagler County School District still seems to tell lies about how awful bullying is Katrina Townsend told my son it was his fault for how he dressed.That whole School District is not looking out for children, My son was bullied in that school not only by a teacher but other children and all they did was cover up and LIE!!!!!!

  7. Gary47290 says:

    The ACLU on behalf of these students should file a preemptive lawsuit against the school administration in their personal capacity. This delay and denial is such an egregious violation of the law and common sense that they should not be allowed to hide behind “We were acting officially” A few personal lawsuits, highly publicized, would stop this obstructionism nationwide.

  8. jespo says:

    To all my bible beating oh my lord hide the children from the gay guy friends out there….you do realize that every human being on this planet who has ever lived has both male and female hormones and dna in their bodies don’t you? So basically, everytime you sleep with a woman you’re also sleeping with part of a male, and vica versa. In that light, everyone is kinda gay.

    Let kids be who they are and stop trying to mold them. Give them guidelines and rules but understand they may go their own way. I could care less if my daughters are straight or gay but rather if they are honest, good, and happy hard working hard living people. This antiquated notion of gender roles is being thrust forward into our current day by desperate fearful people and it needs to be thrown back to the dark ages along with the rest of the garbage no longer relevent.

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