FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
TAMPA - The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida today issued a stern warning to the Hillsborough County School Board and the Extracurricular Clubs Task Force that denying students' right to form Gay-Straight Alliances violates federal law.
"School officials should not silence these student-initiated debates and discussions," said Rob Rosenwald, Director of the ACLU of Florida's LGBT Advocacy Project. "Silencing ideas in a non-curricular setting because some people don't like them is not only incompatible with the educational values of open inquiry and wide-ranging debate -- it is against the law."
The ACLU warning was delivered today in a letter to the school board, the superintendent and the task force chairman and was prompted by an upcoming meeting on February 8 of the Extracurricular Clubs Task Force. The school board has charged the task force with the job of evaluating the school district's policies on extracurricular clubs in the district's secondary schools after parents associated with the Southern Baptist Convention delivered petitions objecting to the existence of GSAs in the schools.
The ACLU letter cited the federal Equal Access Act, which states that if a public high school allows any student group whose purpose is not directly related to the school's curriculum to meet on school grounds during lunch, free periods, and before or after school, then it can't deny other student groups the same access to the school because of the content of their proposed discussions. Schools may not pick and choose among clubs based on what they think students should or should not discuss.
The Equal Access Act was signed into law in 1984 after being heavily promoted by religious groups who wanted to ensure that students could form Christian clubs in public schools. The authors of the law understood that if this right were extended to students who wanted to start religious clubs, then it must be extended to all students.
The ACLU of Florida's letter informed the Hillsborough County School Board that its organization is deeply committed to protecting the federally protected rights of GSAs. For instance, when a school board in Boyd County, Kentucky recently elected not to honor the Equal Access Act, it paid $150,000 in attorneys' fees after a court held that its exclusion of a GSA was in violation of the Equal Access Act.
"Anti-gay harassment and violence are widespread among teenagers, especially in schools," Rosenwald said. "Some of the most common epithets that teens use today to disparage each other are 'faggot,' 'dyke,' and 'queer.' A disproportionate amount of physical violence against gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgender people of all ages is perpetrated by teenage boys.
"Gay/straight alliances help to combat verbal and physical harassment. They create a space where students can come together to share their experiences, to discuss anti-gay attitudes they may experience in school or to debate different perspectives on gay-related issues. Students talking openly and honestly with other students is a uniquely effective way of making young people aware of the harms caused by discrimination and violence."
The full text of the ACLU of Florida's letter can be found online at: http://www.aclufl.org/issues/lesbian_gay_rights/
For more information about LGBT youth and schools, go to /getequal/scho/index.html