11th Circuit Court of Appeals reverses lower court ruling, rules that federal law protecting student groups’ equal access to school facilities applies to public middle schools; ACLU represents students seeking to establish the anti-bullying club in years-

December 6, 2016

MIAMI, Fla. - A federal appeals court panel has overturned a lower court’s ruling that prevented a group of Lake County, Florida students from establishing a gay-straight alliance (GSA) at their middle school.

The ruling today from the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals holds that the Equal Access Act, a federal law that guarantees student groups equal access to school resources if their school allows extra-curricular clubs, applies to public middle schools in Florida, not just high schools.

Today’s ruling comes in Carver Middle School Gay-Straight Alliance v. School Board of Lake County Florida, a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Florida in December 2013 on behalf of a group of students at Carver Middle School challenging the Lake County School Board’s refusal to allow the club to form. It was the second lawsuit filed in less than a year challenging efforts by Lake County school administrators to thwart students’ attempts to establish the GSA.

“We are of course pleased that the court agreed with our legal position on all of the issues in the appeal,” stated Daniel Tilley, Staff Attorney for LGBTS Rights for the ACLU of Florida. “But the greater victory is for the middle school students across Florida who are protected by the Equal Access Act and must be allowed to create a gay-straight alliance if their school allows student clubs.”

GSAs are student organizations made up of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) students and their allies that advocate for an end to bullying, harassment, and discrimination against all students. LGBT students are far more likely than their fellow students to face harassment and discrimination in schools. LGBT students in schools with GSAs are significantly less likely to experience victimization related to their sexual orientation and gender expression, and are less likely to feel unsafe, than students without access a GSA.

In August of 2015, a federal district court dismissed the students’ case, ruling that the Equal Access Act did not apply to middle schools and that school administrator’s repeated efforts to thwart the students’ right to establish the GSA was not a violation of their rights. The ACLU appealed that decision to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. Today’s ruling from the appeals court clarifies that the Equal Access Act does apply to Florida’s public middle schools, and it orders the lower court to conduct further proceedings to address the students’ request to establish the club on campus and other requested relief.

A copy of today’s order is available here: https://aclufl.org/resources/11th-circuit-court-of-appeals-court-order-carver-middle-school-gay-straight-alliance-v-school-board-of-lake-county-florida/

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