A student group at a Central Florida middle school is at the center of arguments this week before an Ocala federal judge. The lawsuit is the second time in two years the American Civil Liberties Union has intervened on behalf of students at one Lake County school.
Carver Middle School in Leesburg has been home to a yearlong dispute over whether students can start a club called a gay-straight alliance – it’s a collection of kids practicing tolerance for people of any sexual orientation. When the school’s principal and school board denied an eighth-grade student’s application to start one early last year, the Florida chapter of the ACLU got involved. Thousands of people across the country have signed online petitions in support of the club. A judge ordered the school to allow the club as long as the petitioning student was enrolled. After she graduated, a seventh-grader once again took up the fight.
Florida ACLU spokesman Baylor Johnson says the school’s refusal stems from a misunderstanding of what a gay-straight alliance is.
“These are student organizations made up of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender students and their straight allies who work together to try and end bullying and harassment and discrimination on campus,” he says.
Thousands of middle and high schools have such clubs. Tallahassee’s Leon High started its alliance about five years ago. Its president, senior Clarke Greene, says she’s involved because she likes how the group acts as a peer support group for students who are bullied—and not just during official meetings.
“One student was being called a faggot on Facebook, and he came to me and said, ‘This is really bothering me,’ and we just had this really long, deep talk about it. It was in private. But we always make sure to say, ‘You can come talk to us at any time. You know, we’re here for you,’” she says.
The students meet in advisor Scott Brown’s classroom. The history and philosophy teacher says he can relate to the students at Carver Middle School because his school’s former principal didn’t accept his club proposal at first either.
“She was uncomfortable with having a GSA, I think more so with the name of it itself, the Gay-Straight Alliance, and she was concerned that if we put up posters the students around the school might attack them, which we made that was an argument why we need one,” he says.
Under federal law, secondary schools must grant equal access for all extracurricular clubs. Until last year, Florida law defined “secondary school” as grades 6 through 12. But after the ACLU got involved at Carver, one Lake County School Board member, Bill Mathias, successfully lobbied to redefine the term “secondary school” in state law.
“It didn’t make sense for us to consider an 11-year-old, 12- and 13-year-old as ‘secondary,’ and so I wrote letters and spoke to our local delegation to the Florida Legislature, and they affected a change,” he explains.
The ACLU’s Johnson says the case could hinge on that definition because while lawmakers removed the “grades 6-through-12” wording, they did not replace it with another definition—which leaves the interpretation up to the judge.
“It’s almost like they’re engaging in a more sophisticated form of the same bullying,” Johnson says.
But Mathias says, “Really I actually resent that because I would never frame Bill Mathias as being a bully.”
Mathias says the school district does not tolerate discrimination. He says starting in kindergarten, students are taught to celebrate their differences.
In light of the case, the board enacted a new middle school policy excluding non-academic clubs altogether.
Mathias explains his support of the “closed” club policy this way: “If you can close your eyes for a minute and imagine how the pendulum could swing to the far left and the far right, that’s what we would have to deal with. And it just seems we really should be focused on academics.”
In its complaint, the ACLU points out that since enacting the closed club policy, the school has accepted an application from the decidedly non-academic cheerleading squad.
The judge does not have a deadline to rule in the case.