Legal group backs gay-straight school club

Illustrated rainbow pride flag on a pink background.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida has filed a lawsuit against the School Board of Okeechobee County after school district administrators unlawfully prevented students who formed the Gay-Straight Alliance of Okeechobee High School (GSA) to meet on high school grounds.

School officials denied official recognition to the GSA even though many other extracurricular clubs – including the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, the Key Club, and the Rodeo team – are officially recognised and meet regularly on school grounds.

According to students, anti-gay harassment and discrimination are serious problems at Okeechobee High School (OHS). Unfortunately, school officials have made the problem worse by discriminating against LGBT students.

Students Yasmin Gonzalez, Amber Sewell and Erica Rodriguez, among others, decided to form the GSA to discuss problems caused by anti-gay bias at OHS after school officials refused to allow Gonzalez and her girlfriend to attend the prom as a couple.

They hope the GSA will promote equality and open-mindedness among students, administrators and staff of the high school.

“Straight kids cannot turn their backs on the plague of violence and discrimination against gay and lesbian students,” said Amber Sewell, one of the club’s founders and straight members. “When students aren’t safe, we can’t learn. Only when we stand together will we find a solution.”

The GSA, which currently meets at a local restaurant, has elected officers and adopted a constitution. The GSA now has approximately 50 members.

“The purpose of the GSA is to provide a safe, supportive environment for students to talk about anti-gay bias, harassment and violence and to work together to promote tolerance, understanding and acceptance of one another, regardless of sexual orientation,” said GSA

President Yasmin Gonzalez.

Gonzalez’s mother, Frankie Michelle Gonzalez, supports her daughter’s decision. “I was shocked when I learned that school employees go unpunished for discriminating against gay students. Everyday, businesses across Florida provide training to their employees on how to prevent this type of discrimination; it’s time for Okeechobee schools to put an end to bullying and harassment of gay kids and start telling teachers that it’s not okay for them to do it.”

The federal Equal Access Act (20 U.S.C. § 4071(a)) requires schools that allow any extracurricular activities to meet on campus to allow all extracurricular student groups to do so and to treat every club equally.

“We are taking a stand today because all students are entitled to a safe and secure education,” said Robert Rosenwald, Director of the ACLU of Florida’s LGBT Advocacy Project. “Florida’s gay and lesbian students deserve schools that are places of learning, not training camps for intolerance, intimidation and violence.

“These students are trying to bring a message of tolerance and openness, and the lesson they are being taught is that Okeechobee High School administrators believe discrimination against LGBT students is an acceptable. Discrimination and harassment by students will never end as long as schools themselves discriminate,” Rosenwald added.

The ACLU of Florida’s LGBT Advocacy Project has worked since its inception in 2005 to protect the legal rights of Florida’s LGBT community, working specifically to protect gay students against discrimination and harassment. GSA’s foster a nurturing environment for LGBT students and promote dialogue between gay and straight students.

The ACLU believes that when sharing of ideas and values among students is encouraged, harassment and violence decrease.

“It is an unfortunate when school administrators discriminate against gay students and send a message that anti-gay harassment is acceptable,” said T.A. Wyner, Chair of the ACLU of Florida’s Treasure Coast Chapter. “School violence undermines the efforts of teachers and the community’s investment in education. One in 12 children miss one day of school each month because they fear for their safety. Absenteeism and drop-out rates would decrease dramatically if our schools had strong policies prohibiting bullying and harassment of lesbian and gay kids.”

The lawsuit was filed this week in the US District Court for the Southern District of Florida. Robert Rosenwald, Director of the ACLU of Florida’s LGBT Advocacy Project, is lead counsel for the ACLU’s case, Gay-Straight Alliance of Okeechobee High School et al v. Okeechobee School Board and Okeechobee High School. The ACLU also asked the court to issue a preliminary injunction that would allow the GSA to meet at the school while the lawsuit proceeds.