Lawsuit brought on behalf of seventh-grader and fellow classmates is the second this year to compel district to comply with law and allow anti-bullying club to meet

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: December 19, 2013
CONTACT:  ACLU of Florida Media Office,, (786) 363-2737

OCALA, FL - Today, on behalf of a group of students led by  12-year-old Hannah Faughnan, a seventh-grader from Leesburg, Florida, who have attempted to form a Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) at their school, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Florida and the National ACLU brought a lawsuit against the School Board of Lake County.  The lawsuit is the second this year brought by students at Carver Middle School challenging the School Board’s ongoing efforts to thwart students’ constitutionally-protected right to establish a GSA to combat bullying at their school.

Earlier this year, the ACLU of Florida represented Bayli Silberstein, then a 14-year-old 8th-grader at Carver whose effort to establish the club had been blocked by school administrators for nearly a year. During her months-long battle to create the club, hundreds came out in support at school board meetings and tens of thousands signed a nationwide petition urging the school board to let the group meet. After a final move by the school board to delay a proposed club policy, the ACLU of Florida, on behalf of Bayli, sued the school district on May 1st. A settlement reached in that case the following day allowed the club to meet as long as Bayli was a student at Carver.

The club met several times at the end of the 2012-2013 school year to plan their work for the next school year, including electing future officers. Hannah was elected Vice President of the club. Since Bayli Silberstein now attends high school, Hannah and her friends have attempted to reorganize the club under the district’s new club policy, but have met the same administrative impediments that had previously blocked the club from forming.

“Bullying has been a real problem for a lot of my friends here at Carver,” stated Hannah. “When the GSA got to meet last year, we talked about ideas to help make things better for everyone this school year. It’s frustrating that we haven’t been able to do anything yet, especially because other clubs have already been meeting but we have not been allowed to meet.”

GSAs are student organizations made up of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) students and their straight allies that advocate for an end to bullying, harassment, and discrimination against all students.  LGBT students in schools with GSAs are 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.

“I’m proud of what Hannah and her friends are doing to make things better at Carver,” stated Janine Faughnan, Hannah’s mother. “This is a group of kids dedicated to working together to make their school a better place. I don’t understand why the school administrators, who are supposed to be supporting things to keep our kids safe, won’t let them do that.”

In August, the school board passed a new club policy that included new requirements for middle-school student clubs and required all existing clubs, including the Carver GSA, to reapply in order to meet. The GSA submitted the club application explaining the goals of the club – including “to create and execute strategies to confront and work to end bullying, discrimination, and harassment against all students” – in October. On December 5th, after the ACLU requested an update on the status of the GSA application, the school board’s attorney stated that the Superintendent had denied the club application under the new club policy and would not permit it to operate as a school club, claiming that the club was not an extension of the school curriculum.  However, numerous non-curricular clubs have been approved across the district.

“It seems there’s nothing the school board won’t do to keep the students at Carver Middle School from their legally-protected right to start a GSA and fight bullying and discrimination at their school,” stated Daniel Tilley, staff attorney for the ACLU of Florida. “It’s clear that the school board’s new club policy was just the latest tool to try to stop these students. What’s most disappointing is that as these kids are facing bullying in the classrooms, they’re being subjected to a more sophisticated kind of bullying from the officials who should be protecting them. The school board’s response to what these kids are doing is the perfect example of why a GSA is so important.”

GSAs exist in thousands of schools across the nation. Although in rare cases a denial of students’ rights to establish GSAs results in a lawsuit, school districts often avoid needless controversy and costly litigation by allowing the clubs to form once they recognize the benefit of a GSA to the school community.  In January 2013, the ACLU succeeded without litigation 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. In April 2013, in Polk County, Florida, a school allowed a GSA to form within days of receiving a letter from the ACLU of Florida regarding the right of students to form GSAs.

Where schools have chosen to ignore clearly established federal law at taxpayers’ expense, as the Lake County School Board has now done twice, the ACLU has used litigation as a last resort. The ACLU has been involved in multiple 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 against the Okeechobee County School Board. 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.

A copy of the complaint filed today in the United States District Court, Middle District of Florida is available here:

More information about the previous legal challenge to the school board’s blocking of the GSA is available here:

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