TAVARES, Fla. — Eighth-grader Bayli Silberstein left the Lake County School Board meeting blinking back tears after board members voted 4-1 to table a final vote that could have allowed her proposed gay-straight club to form before the end of school.
Since November, Bayli, an openly bisexual 14-year-old, has been trying to start a Gay-Straight Alliance at Carver Middle School in Leesburg to combat bullying of gay classmates.
She has been thwarted by a school principal who didn’t acknowledge her application and by School Board members who initially tried to create a ban on all non-academic student clubs.
Monday night more than 350 people packed the Lake County School Board meeting room where the board was scheduled to vote on a rule to allow nonacademic student clubs in middle and high schools. But a change in state law prompted them to table the discussion and call for a workshop.
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Bayli, the American Civil Liberties Union and gay-rights advocates have pressed the School Board to allow the club.
The ACLU contends that under the federal Equal Access Act, schools cannot discriminate against clubs based on what they might discuss. If a school allows a club not directly tied to school courses, it must treat other clubs the same, according to the group.
The rule applies to “secondary” schools in Florida, which had meant grades 6 to 12. But a little-noticed tweak in the Florida definition of “secondary” schools muddles which grades receive that protection. Senate Bill 1076, which was signed into law Monday, removes the “secondary” schools definition and does provide a new one.
Lake School Board attorney Steve Johnson said based on his review of other Florida laws, it appears “secondary” schools refer to high schools — not middle schools.
If middle schools aren’t protected by the federal law, then School Board members could deal with the clubs how they wish, according to a district memo from Johnson.
The tweak in state law comes after School Board members Tod Howard and Bill Mathias pressed lawmakers to change the definition of “secondary” schools to mean grades 9 to 12.
The two voted against a preliminary rule last month that would allow the club to form, suggesting that gay-straight topics weren’t appropriate for middle-school children.
Board members Debbie Stivender, Rosanne Brandeburg and Chairwoman Kyleen Fischer voted in support of the rule.
The ACLU contends the federal law applies to middle schools, but even if it didn’t, students still have the right to form the group under the First Amendment.