LEESBURG, Fla. - Students at Carver Middle School in Leesburg can move forward with the creation of a gay-straight alliance (GSA) club following a Dec. 6 court ruling.
The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeal, based in Atlanta, reversed a lower court decision by declaring the proposed GSA should be allowed the same access to school facilities as other clubs.
Brad Koogler, executive director of Safe Schools South Florida, told the Florida Record “Safe Schools South Florida supports the rights of all students to have access to safe, equitable and affirming school environments.”
The case originated in 2013 when a group of Carver students, along with the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida (ACLU), sought school approval to start a GSA. When the school did not permit the club to be an official school-sanctioned activity, the students took the Lake County School Board to court but lost in a 2015 decision. U.S. District Judge William Terrell Hodges ruled that the district was correct in not allowing the club because Carver was a middle school and therefore not covered under the Equal Access Act.
In the Dec. 6 ruling, the Atlanta court issued their decision with a return to the Equal Access Act. This law, passed in 1984, states that any secondary school that receives federal funding must treat all clubs the same.
The court’s ruling looked past an earlier effort by state lawmakers in 2013 to describe secondary schools as those that only cover the high school years and not the law’s original description of grades 6th to 12th.
The ruling took this approach to concerns that "Carver Middle School provides courses through which students can obtain high school credit. The Equal Access Act applies to Carver Middle School."
In a similar case from 2008, the courts ruled in favor of the student’s rights to form a GSA on the basis of the Equal Rights Act and the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment. (A ruling that itself reached back to a 1969 U.S. Supreme Court case that decided that the free speech clause does apply to students.)
When it comes to GSA and similar organizations, Koogler said “Research indicates all students, including LGBT students, benefit when these supports are in place. All schools that care about raising GPAs, improving attendance and graduation rates, strengthening school connectedness, and preparing students for the future should implement these supports immediately.”
While students celebrated the ruling and began making plans, administrators at Carver and for the Lake County School Board were considering their options.
Sherri Owens, communications officer for Lake County Schools, told the Florida Record “Our attorney is meeting with the board in an executive session [ Dec. 12] to discuss next steps.” Following that meeting Owens said, "We do not have any information to share publicly from Monday’s closed executive session.”
Koogler said “GSAs, along with professional development, safe zones, visible adult allies, direct support services, inclusive policies and inclusive curriculum, are critical for the safety, health and academic achievement of LGBT students.”