Victory for Lakeland Students as Gay-Straight Alliance Allowed to Form

Affiliate: ACLU of Florida
April 30, 2013 10:10 am

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Kathleen High School Students and ACLU Advocated for Club to Fight Anti-LGBT Bullying

April 29, 2013

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LAKELAND, FL – A group of students at Kathleen High School in Lakeland, Florida have been informed after months of delay that school administrators will allow them to establish a Gay-Straight Alliance student club at the school. The students had reached out to the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida for assistance in getting the club recognized.

Rory Teal and Brenna Pelland, two seventeen-year-old 11th graders at Kathleen High School had been working for months to establish the GSA in order to confront bullying and promote tolerance for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students at Kathleen High School, having first contacted administrators about the club in November 2012.

“We are really excited that the GSA is going to be allowed to start creating a safe space where students can be themselves,” stated Pelland. “We want our school to be a place where people are respected for who they are, and the GSA is going to help a lot with that.”

“The bullying situation made focusing on academics really hard for a lot of people,” stated Teal. “We’re glad we don’t have to wait until next year for the club to help students feel comfortable at school.”

GSAs are student organizations made up of LGBT students and their straight allies that advocate for an end to bullying, harassment, and discrimination against all students.

The students contacted the ACLU of Florida, who sent a letter to Polk County School Board Superintendent Dr. John A. Stewart regarding the importance of GSAs in creating a safe and welcoming learning environment for students and the school’s legal obligation to allow the club to form. A week later, in a meeting after school on Friday, April 26th, Teal and Pelland were informed by the Kathleen High School principal that the GSA would be allowed to meet.

“This is a victory for all students at Kathleen High School,” stated ACLU of Florida staff attorney Daniel Tilley. “We’re glad that school administrators have recognized that Rory and Brenna have a right to form their club and that there will be no further delay for the GSA to begin its work to benefit all of the students of Kathleen High School, just as GSAs do in thousands of schools across the country.”

The ACLU has been involved in multiple successful federal court cases upholding students’ rights to form GSAs at public schools, including several in Florida. 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 to the ACLU. 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. And in January 2013, the ACLU succeeded without a lawsuit 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 ACLU of Florida is also currently working with Bayli Silberstein, an 8th-grader in Lake County, Florida to establish a GSA to make her school safer in the face of ongoing opposition and resistance from the school board.

“We are always pleased when administrators recognize the right of students to establish a GSA rather than create needless controversy by delaying and denying students their rights,” continued Tilley. “The students, parents, faculty, and administrators at Kathleen High School will soon realize what a benefit it is to the school community to have a group of dedicated students like Rory and Brenna working to make their school a safer and more welcoming place.”

A copy of the letter sent by the ACLU to the superintendent is available here.

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