Washington High School GSA the first organization of its kind in Pensacola schools. Club to fight bullying, make school safer for all students


CONTACT: ACLU of Florida Media Office, 786-363-2737, media@aclufl.org

PENSACOLA - This week, as a result of the courageous work of student leaders at Booker T. Washington High School in Pensacola, students at that school will be able to form a Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA). The organization is the first of its kind at a high school in the Escambia County School District, and its establishment comes as a result of the hard work of student leaders to ensure that administrators respected the right of the club to be recognized.

“We are very happy about this victory,” stated Bradley Thompson, a student leader who will become one of the club’s founding members. “We’re excited about the possibilities of creating a club to make a safer and more welcoming environment for all students, including LGBT students.”

After compiling a list of over two dozen students wishing to join the GSA in the fall semester of 2012, student leaders at Washington High School secured a faculty sponsor. The sponsor filed the club-registration application with the school, and it was denied. Student leaders then contacted the ACLU of Florida to ensure that their constitutionally protected right to form the GSA was respected. ACLU Staff Attorney Benjamin Stevenson worked with the students to apprise the superintendent and school-board attorney of their legal obligations under both the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the Equal Access Act, sending a letter on January 10th noting the recent successful legal challenges brought by the ACLU of Florida on behalf of students who sought to establish GSAs and were met with administrative resistance.

Within days, Superintendent Malcolm Thomas coordinated a meeting with officials at Booker T. Washington High School, and the school has finally agreed to uphold federal law by permitting the GSA to become an official club.

“Superintendent Thomas has shown leadership in respecting the rights of these students and convincing the school to do the right thing for the students at Washington High School,” stated Sara Latshaw, an LGBT-rights organizer with the ACLU of Florida who works in the organization’s Pensacola office. “The fact that the school initially ignored and then rejected the GSA’s application reflects the very reason why such clubs are so needed.”

GSAs are student organizations made up of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) students, along with their 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% of LGBT students reported being verbally harassed, 40.1% reported being physically harassed and 18.8% reported being physically assaulted at school in the past year because of their sexual orientation.”

Daniel Tilley, who works on LGBT rights for the ACLU of Florida, agreed that the school’s reversal of position was a smart one: “The right of these students to form a GSA is clearly established law. A decision to deny the ability of the GSA to form would not only have been a clear-cut violation of the students’ rights, but it also would have embroiled the school in needless litigation with an obvious outcome, potentially costing the school district’s taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees. The school was wise to follow the law.”

This establishment of the GSA comes on the heels of other victories by the ACLU of Florida in helping students form GSAs at their schools. 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 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. Finally, in 2012, the ACLU of Florida reached a settlement in a lawsuit against the School Board for Marion County; the judge in that case ordered the school to officially recognize the Vanguard High School GSA.

A copy of the letter sent by the ACLU of Florida to the Escambia County School Board is available here.

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