ACLU of Florida Files Lawsuit after Latest Lake County School Board Move to Block 8th-Grader's Gay-Straight Alliance

School Board Vote to Table Policy Most Recent Barrier for 14-Year-Old Bayli Silberstein's Safe Schools Club

May 1, 2013

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
CONTACT: 212-549-2666, media@aclu.org

OCALA, Fla. – Today, on behalf of 14-year-old Bayli Silberstein of Leesburg, Florida, the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida brought a lawsuit against the School Board of Lake County, Florida, which has repeatedly thwarted Silberstein’s efforts and constitutionally-protected right to establish a Gay-Straight Alliance club at her school. The school board voted last week to table a proposed middle school club policy, throwing up a final administrative barrier for the club and effectively continuing its ban on the GSA.

“I’m really frustrated that we’ve reached this point, but we can’t wait any longer,” stated Silberstein, an 8th-grader at Carver Middle School. “The bullying at my school is really bad, and I don’t want to have another school year go by without kids feeling like there’s a safe place where they can be themselves. But the school board keeps trying to stop us.”

GSAs are student organizations made up of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students and their straight allies that advocate for an end to bullying, harassment, and discrimination against all students. LGBT students in schools with a GSA are significantly less likely to experience victimization related to their sexual orientation and gender expression, and less likely to feel unsafe because of their sexual orientation than students without a GSA. Silberstein has been working to establish a GSA at her school since the 2011-2012 school year, but faced multiple delays from school administrators regarding whether they’d allow the club to form. Frustrated by the inaction, Silberstein and her mother reached out to the ACLU of Florida for assistance in January of 2013.

“As a parent, the only thing worse than knowing that your child is facing bullying at their school is knowing that school administrators aren’t helping to stop it,” stated Erica Silberstein, Bayli’s mother. “I’m proud of what my daughter is trying to do to make her school a safer place. Why won’t the school board let her do it?”

The ACLU of Florida sent a letter to the School Board on January 23rd explaining the legal right of the club to form as well as the benefits that a GSA would have for all students. “Creating an atmosphere in which bullying and violence are not tolerated and everyone is valued and respected will help make all students better citizens,” the letter explained.

The school board then proposed a ban on all non-academic clubs at middle schools to stop the GSA. However, following a petition signed by over 55,000 people, and hundreds of parents and concerned citizens turning out at school board meetings to protest the policy, the school board instead moved forward with a proposal to create a middle school club policy that would allow all clubs, including the GSA, to be treated the same.

Despite giving every outward indication that the new policy would mean Silberstein could finally establish her GSA, the school board voted 4-1 on April 22nd to table the proposal—meaning that they decided not to address it, thus leaving the ban on the GSA in place.

“The school board has had ample time and every opportunity to follow the law, and they’ve finally demonstrated that they just aren’t interested,” stated Daniel Tilley, staff attorney for the ACLU of Florida. “We gave the school board the benefit of the doubt that, despite the delays, they were acting in good faith to create a policy that would let Bayli and her friends establish their club to start making their school safer and more welcoming. Bayli’s patience has been rewarded with the school board pulling the rug out from under her at the last minute.”

“The actions of the school board demonstrate why a GSA is so badly needed to dispel misconceptions about LGBT students and put a stop to their harassment,” added Tilley. “By biding their time pretending to do the right thing, then turning away at the last minute, the school board is engaging in a more sophisticated version of the very bullying that started this.”

GSAs exist in thousands of schools across the nation. Although in rare cases a denial of students’ rights to establish GSAs results in a lawsuit, school districts often avoid needless controversy and costly litigation by allowing the clubs to form once they recognize the benefit of a GSA to the school community. In January 2013, the ACLU succeeded without litigation 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. Last week, in Polk County, Florida, a school allowed a GSA to form within days of receiving a letter from the ACLU of Florida regarding the right of students to form GSAs.

Where schools have chosen to ignore clearly established federal law at taxpayers’ expense, as the Lake County School Board has done, the ACLU has used litigation as a last resort. The ACLU has been involved in nine successful federal court cases upholding students’ rights to form GSAs at public schools. In 2008, the ACLU won a case on behalf of a GSA in which the Okeechobee County School Board paid $326,000 in attorneys’ fees. In 2012, the ACLU reached a settlement in a lawsuit against the School Board for Marion County, in which the judge ordered the school to officially recognize the Vanguard High School GSA.

A copy of the complaint filed today in the United States District Court, Middle District of Florida is available here.

A copy of the January 23rd letter sent by the ACLU to the Lake County School Board is available here.

The petition created by the ACLU in which over 55,000 have supported Bayli is available here.

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