Polk County Students and ACLU of Florida Urge Superintendent to Allow Gay-Straight Alliance

Affiliate: ACLU of Florida
April 19, 2013 3:39 pm

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LAKELAND, FL On Thursday, April 18th, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Florida, sent a demand letter on behalf of two student leaders from Kathleen High School in Lakeland, Florida to the superintendent of the Polk County School Board calling on the district to recognize the students’ Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) club in order to confront bullying and promote tolerance for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) students.

Rory Teal and Brenna Pelland, two seventeen-year-old 11th graders at Kathleen High School, have been working to establish the club since November 2012, but school officials have thus far not permitted them to do so. “The bullying has been really tough at our school, and having this club would give kids a safe place to be themselves and it would put a stop to a lot of the bullying,” stated Pelland. “We just want our school to be a place where kids are respected for who they are, and a GSA can help make that happen.”

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. According to a 2011 survey by the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network, LGBT students in schools with a GSA were significantly less likely to experience victimization related to their sexual orientation and gender expression, and less likely to feel unsafe because of their sexual orientation than students without a GSA.

“We’re really disappointed that the school hasn’t given us an answer yet, and with the end of the year coming up, we didn’t want to have to wait until next year to have the club meet to start trying to make KHS safer,” stated Rory. “We started doing research and found out that the ACLU had helped a GSA a few counties over.”

That situation was the case of Bayli Silberstein, an 8th-grader from Lake County who the ACLU is assisting in forming a GSA after the school board there had proposed a ban on all extracurricular clubs to prevent Bayli from forming her GSA. On Monday, April 22, the Lake County School Board will vote on a compromise plan which could allow the GSA to form.

“Brenna and Rory have a clearly-established right to create a GSA and to start working to make Kathleen High School a safer and more welcoming place for all students,” stated ACLU of Florida LGBT Policy Strategist Daniel Tilley. “We hope that school administrators recognize that, and that they give the GSA the same status and treatment as any other student club, as the law requires.”

After being contacted by Rory and Brenna, the ACLU sent a public records request to investigate the cause for the delay. Administrators told Rory and Brenna that the long delay in receiving a response about the GSA was due to the many club applications that had been filed and required review. ACLU’s public records request revealed that since July 2012 the total number of applications filed was two.

In addition to the ACLU of Florida’s work with Bayli Silberstein in Lake County, the ACLU has been involved in nine successful federal court cases upholding students’ rights to form GSAs at public schools. 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. 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.

A copy of the letter sent by the ACLU is available here: http://aclufl.org/resources/gsa-demand-letter-to-polk-county-school-board-superintendent/

More information about the ACLU of Florida’s work for the GSA in Lake County is available here: http://aclufl.org/?p=2889

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