Legal victory for gay-straight alliance in Florida high school

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A federal judge on Aug. 14 ordered Marion County, Fla. Superintendent Jim Yancey to comply with federal law and allow the Vanguard Gay-Straight Alliance, a student organization at Vanguard High School in Ocala, to form and operate on campus.

The order, following a settlement reached by the parties involved, resolves a months-long battle by members of the GSA along with the ACLU of Florida to allow the organization to form, meet and be recognized at Vanguard High School.

U.S. District Judge Marcia Morales Howard signed the order.

“We are very happy about today’s victory,” said Vanguard GSA president Dylan Lee, one of the plaintiffs in the case, identified in the lawsuit as “D.L.” as required for minors by court rules. “Now that it’s official, we’re excited for the GSA to start working to create a safer and more welcoming environment at our school when classes start again next week.”

In March, after applying for official student club status, members of the Vanguard GSA were told by Vanguard High principal Milford Lankford that he was “uncomfortable” with a GSA on “his campus.”

Despite providing information from the U.S. Department of Education demonstrating the role GSA’s can promote safer schools and creating more welcoming learning environments, Lankford did not change his decision.

The members of the Vanguard GSA appealed to schools Superintendent Jim Yancey, who in May informed the GSA plaintiffs that he would not “permit the Alliance to be formed at Vanguard High School at this time.”

Lee and GSA vice president Sarah Kirk contacted the ACLU of Florida, which filed a lawsuit alleging the school district violated the federal Equal Access Act and the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

“While it was a long fight to make it happen, I’m glad that we’ll start the school year with the GSA being treated just the same as any other student club,” said Kirk. “We had 45 students sign the petition to say they wanted a GSA at our school, and now the organization to start making Vanguard High a safer place.”

ACLU of Florida staff attorney Benjamin Stevenson said, “The good news is that the student’s right to have their organization treated like all other student clubs will finally be respected by administrators. Unfortunately, the grudging way in which the school board accepted the decree reflects the very misunderstandings about LGBT students that make GSAs so necessary.”

Following the filing of the lawsuit, the school board held a vote on whether or not to accept a consent decree, initially voting against the consent decree.

When one school board member brought up the ACLU’s history of legal successes in defending students’ rights to form GSAs and the legal costs of violating students’ rights in these cases, a re-vote was taken in which the board accepted the decree with an addendum stating that the board still opposed the formation of the group.

GSAs are student organizations made up of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students and straight allies who advocate for an end to bullying, harassment and discrimination against LGBT students and others.

A 2009 survey by the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education network found that 84.6 percent of LGBT students reported being verbally harassed, 40.1 percent reported being physically harassed and 18.8 percent reported being physically assaulted at school in the past year because of their sexual orientation.