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Florida High School Gay Straight Alliance Takes On School Board

Ariel Tirosh Apr 13, 2009

By Ariel Tirosh

In the past six months, 15-year-old Hannah Page has learned a lot about civil rights. In that time, she started a Gay Straight Alliance at her high school, had it shut down by the school board, and taken the board to court.

Page lives in Yulee, Flor., a small town near Jacksonville. She and Jacob Brock,16, both students at Yulee High School, decided to start a Gay Straight Alliance (GSA) at their school to combat gender- and sex-based discrimination. According to Page, there was “a lot of discrimination in our school system and in our whole community.”

GSAs are student clubs in middle schools, high schools and colleges that promote tolerance and the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) youth. The first U.S.-based GSAs began in Massachusetts in the late 1980s. There are currently more than 4,000 nation-wide.

The club first met Oct. 1, 2008. A few weeks later, the school principal, Diane T. Romon, instructed the faculty sponsor to shut down the GSA due to pressure from the school board. The board was concerned that the club’s name violated the administration’s abstinence-only policy and that the topic could be disruptive to students.

Page and Brock contacted the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, who sent letters to the school board which did not respond. Finally, on Feb. 10, Page and Brock sued the school board and requested a temporary injunction so that the club could meet while the case was being litigated.

On March 11, the temporary injunction was granted by U.S. District Judge Henry Adams, who asked the school board’s attorney, Frank Sheppard, “Is it the school board’s policy that all gay children should stay in the closet?” Adams also wondered aloud whether the GSA would not reduce discrimination because of it’s stated purpose of increasing tolerance and awareness.

Since the injunction, the GSA has met weekly with no problems. Page is optimistic for the future of the club. “The same case has been won in other places. All of the evidence of past cases points to a good ending for the GSA,” she said.

And she is right. In a similar case won by students in Okeechobee, Flor., in 2007, a federal judge ruled that the GSA was not a sex-based club and therefore did not violate the Okeechobee High School’s abstinence-only policies. The judge also ruled that the student’s first amendment rights were being violated, as well as their rights under the Federal Equal Access Act, and held that schools must care for the well-being of gay students.

The Federal Equal Access Act (20 U.S.C. § 4071(a)) requires that any public school that allows extracurricular clubs on campus grounds must allow all types of clubs to meet and must treat each club equally.

Similar cases have been fought in El Modena, Calif., Ashland, Kent., and Rockton, Ill., all with positive results for the GSA.

Carolyn Laub is the Executive Director of the GSA Network in California. There were 40 GSAs in California when she founded it in 1998 — there are more than 700 today. In fact, more than 50 percent of schools in California have GSAs, and schools rarely try to prevent their formation.

Still, said Laub, even in California, students are not safe. Students are reporting higher levels of violence, harassment and discrimination. They are being harassed by their peers for real or perceived stereotypes, but they are also being discriminated against by the schools themselves. “Students are being told that they are too gay, too effeminate, that they didn’t work hard enough to conform,” she said, and they are being punished for it.

There are also increasing reports of harassment in middle schools. “School administrators are often not equipped to deal with harassment or bullying because they did not expect this to go on in middle schools,” said Laub, “They thought it was a high school problem.”

On Jan. 1, 2000, California became one of the first states to pass a safe schools law. The California Student Safety and Violence Prevention Act of 2000 prohibits discrimination and harassment on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity in California public schools. The law now prohibits discrimination in schools based on actual or perceived ideas about a person. In 2003, 15 states had passed similar laws. As of March 2009, only 11 states and the District of Columbia do not have a similar law.

New York State has the Dignity for All Students Act, passed in 2004. There is a proposed amendment (A03661/S01987) being debated in the State Legislature to make the act more comprehensive.

Laub is proud of the progress made in her 11 years working for GSAs. Still, she has witnessed a rise in discrimination ever since the Proposition 8 fight, and says there is a long way to go. “People don’t believe in equality for LGBT[Q] people,” she said.

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