Federal Court Victory for Ocala Gay-Straight Alliance

August 14, 2012

After objections by school officials and filing of ACLU lawsuit, judge signs order ensuring club for LGBT students and allies can meet at Vanguard High

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
CONTACT: (212) 549-2666; media@aclu.org

OCALA – A federal judge today signed a consent decree and order that compels Marion County Superintendent Jim Yancey to comply with federal law and allow the Vanguard Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA), a student organization at Vanguard High School in Ocala, Florida, to form and operate on campus. The consent settlement reached by the parties now has the force of law and resolves a months-long battle by members of the GSA along with the ACLU of Florida to allow the organization to form, meet, and be recognized at Vanguard High School. The consent decree and order was signed today by U.S. District Judge Marcia Morales Howard in the U.S. District Court, Middle District of Florida.

“We are very happy about today’s victory,” stated Vanguard GSA president Dylan Lee, one of the plaintiffs in the case, identified in the lawsuit as “D.L.” as required for minors by court rules . “Now that it’s official, we’re excited for the GSA to start working to create a safer and more welcoming environment at our school when classes start again next week.”
In March 2012, after applying for official student club status, members of the Vanguard GSA were told by Vanguard High Principal Milford Lankford that he was “uncomfortable” with a GSA on “his campus.” Despite providing information from the U.S. Department of Education demonstrating the role GSA’s can play in “promoting safer schools and creating more welcoming learning environments,” Lankford did not change his decision to prohibit the Vanguard GSA from being recognized as a school club.

The members of the Vanguard GSA appealed to Superintendent Jim Yancey. On May 15, 2012, Superintendent Yancey informed the GSA Plaintiffs through his lawyer that he “decline[d] to permit the Alliance to be formed at Vanguard High School at this time.” Vanguard GSA president Lee and vice president Kirk then contacted and worked with the ACLU of Florida to ensure their constitutionally-protected right to form the organization was respected by school administrators. The ACLU of Florida filed a lawsuit on May 24, stating that the school district’s unlawful refusal to let the group form violated the federal Equal Access Act and the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

“While it was a long fight to make it happen, I’m glad that we’ll start the school year with the GSA being treated just the same as any other student club,” said Vanguard GSA vice-president Sarah Kirk, identified in the lawsuit as S.K. “We had 45 students sign the petition to say they wanted a GSA at our school, and now the organization to start making Vanguard High a safer place.”

“Although we’re certainly grateful to have secured this victory for our clients without extensive litigation, it is unfortunate that the school board was motivated more by the prospect of paying attorney fees than complying with the constitution and federal law or providing student safety, stated ACLU of Florida staff attorney Benjamin Stevenson. “The good news is that the student’s right to have their organization treated like all other student clubs will finally be respected by administrators. Unfortunately, the grudging way in which the school board accepted the decree reflects the very misunderstandings about LGBT students that make GSAs so necessary.”

Following the filing of the lawsuit, the school board held a vote on whether or not to accept a consent decree, initially voting against the consent decree. When one School Board member brought up the ACLU’s history of legal successes in defending students’ rights to form GSAs and the legal costs of violating students’ rights in these cases, a re-vote was taken in which the Board accepted the decree with an addendum stating that the Board still opposed the formation of the group.

GSAs are student organizations made up of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) students and 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% of LGBT students reported being verbally harassed, 40.1% reported being physically harassed and 18.8% reported being physically assaulted at school in the past year because of their sexual orientation.”

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 also reached a settlement in a lawsuit against the School Board of Nassau County, in which a judge ordered the district to allow a GSA at Yulee High School to hold meetings.

A copy of the signed consent decree is available here:
http://www.aclufl.org/pdfs/2012-08-14-ACLUVanguardGSAOrder.pdf

A copy of the complaint filed against the school district on May 25th is available here:
http://www.aclufl.org/pdfs/2012-05-ACLUVanguardGSAComplaint.pdf

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