Students seek court order compelling district to comply with law and allow school group for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students and allies

CONTACT: ACLU of Florida Media Office, (786) 363-2737 or
May 24, 2012

ORLANDO – On behalf of two Vanguard High School students, the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Florida (ACLU) today filed a lawsuit against Superintendent Jim Yancey and the School Board for Marion County after the Superintendent unlawfully denied the students’ application to form a Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) in violation of the federal Equal Access Act and the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The lawsuit filed today on behalf of the students and their student group, Vanguard GSA, asks a court to “enjoin the school officials from refusing to recognize Vanguard GSA as a student club and allow it to function as a school club on par with other clubs at school.”

In March 2012, 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 play in “promoting safer schools and creating more welcoming learning environments,” Lankford did not change his decision to disallow the Vanguard GSA to be recognized as a school club.

The members of the Vanguard GSA appealed to the Superintendent Yancey. On May 15, 2012, Superintendent Yancey informed the GSA Plaintiffs through his lawyer that he “decline[d] to permit the Alliance to be formed at Vanguard High School at this time.”

“All we want is to be able to have a GSA at our school,” stated the Vanguard GSA’s president and Vanguard High junior Dylan Lee, identified in the lawsuit as “D.L.” as required for minors by court rules. “We had 45 students sign the petition to say they wanted a GSA at our school. We have the same right to free expression and to be recognized by the school as any other club.”

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

According to the Vanguard GSA’s Constitution and Bylaws, the purpose of the organization is “[t]o create safe environments in schools for students to support each other and learn about homophobia, transphobia, and other oppressions; [to] educate the school community about homophobia, transphobia, gender identity, and sexual orientation issues; [and t]o fight bullying, discrimination, harassment and violence at school.”

“It’s frustrating enough that the school won’t recognize our group or give us access to school facilities, but what’s even more frustrating is that they say it’s because they think a GSA would not be ‘age-appropriate’,” said Vanguard GSA vice-president Sarah Kirk, identified in the lawsuit as S.K. “Bullying doesn’t just affect older students.  Freshman can be bullied too.”

The lawsuit alleges that denying the group’s right to form violates the students’ First Amendment and Fourteenth Amendment rights to free speech and free association, as well as the federal Equal Access Act.  The Equal Access Act is a federal law requiring schools to grant access and official recognition to a GSA as well as most other student groups if the school allows any extra-curricular groups to meet on campus.

“The law is clear that school officials cannot deny a group because of the group’s beliefs.  Their club that will speak out against bullying and make the school safer for LGBT students deserves the same standing as any other group on campus.” said ACLU Foundation of Florida Staff Attorney Benjamin Stevenson, lead counsel for the plaintiffs.  “The ACLU of Florida is taking a stand for the right of gay students and their friends and allies to form a student club on an equal basis as other noncurricular clubs.”

In 2008, the ACLU of Florida won a similar case on behalf of a GSA in Okeechobee, Florida. The judge ruled that schools must provide for the well-being of gay students and cannot discriminate against the GSA. The Okeechobee County School Board paid $326,000 in attorneys’ fees in that case. In 2009, the ACLU of Florida also reached a settlement in a lawsuit against the School Board of Nassau County, in which a judge ordered the district to allow a GSA at Yulee High School to hold meetings.

The lawsuit was filed today in the Ocala Division of the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida.

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A copy of the complaint filed today is available here:

Information about the ACLU of Florida’s recent successful defenses of gay-straight alliances in Florida is available here: