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Fla. school board tables rules discussion to avoid allowing gay-straight alliance

Tuesday, April 23, 2013
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LEESBURG, Fla. — Efforts to establish a gay-straight student alliance at a Florida middle school failed after school board members voted Monday night to table discussions about proposed rules for the club.

Bayli Silberstein, an openly bisexual 14-year-old, at Carver Middle School in Leesburg, Fla., has led the campaign to start the GSA to counter bullying at the school and provide a safe haven for LGBT students.

Bayli said her application was denied last school year, and when she reapplied last November, she never received a response from the school’s principal about whether it was approved or denied.

The American Civil Liberties Union, which is backing the gay-straight group, said that under the federal Equal Access Act, Bayli’s club is protected because schools cannot discriminate against non-academic clubs based on the topics they discuss. If a school has one non-academic club, then it must treat others the same, the group holds.

At issue now is a change in state law — signed by GOP Gov. Rick Scott on Monday and goes in effect July 1 — that does not define which grades are protected by a federal law that bans schools from discriminating against non-academic clubs.

The law removed the definition of “secondary” schools and did not replace it with a clear definition, leaving it up for debate as to whether a middle school is protected, reported the Orlando Sentinel.

School board attorney Steve Johnson said that based on his review of other Florida laws, his interpretation is that “secondary” schools mean high schools — not middle schools. He claimed the school board isn’t required to apply the federal law to middle schools.

Board members said they wanted to take more time to “workshop” the rules in light of the change in state law.

Bayli left Monday night’s school board meeting fighting back tears after board members voted 4-1 to table the discussion that could have allowed the proposed GSA to form before the end of the school year.

Without any action Monday, school principals are now left to decide how to handle school clubs.

Following the vote, Joyce Hamilton, an ACLU regional director, said she was disappointed by the move and will evaluate whether or not to take legal action.

“I am concerned about the environment that is now created in the school that is being perpetuated by the adults who profess … to have the best interest of all students in mind,” she said.

Silberstein said she will continue to push for the GSA to be allowed.

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