One Florida School Protects Students, While Another Forbids GSA
Even with statistics confirming a ninety percent harassment rate in schools today, two Florida school boards chose polar opposite approaches toward LGBT students. Only one voted to make its schools safe.
On December 11, 2012, the Orange County School Board voted to update their non-discrimination policy for teachers, staff and students to include sexual orientation and gender identity or expression. Like many other Florida schools, Orange County chose to make changes in order to ensure full equality and equal protections for all their students and staff.
But not all schools say they are ready to make the critical step forward. Currently, the Lake County School Board is facing national criticism over their less-than-friendly treatment of LGBT students and their fight to start a gay/straight alliance in their schools.
"I think the board sent a very unified message," Orange County School Board member Rick Roach told EDGE. "We want ALL of our teachers to be talented, well respected and feeling like they are part of the team. For our kids, we want all kids to attend school and get their human needs met in a safe, accepting, challenging environment."
The six to two vote was taken after a lengthy and sometimes-heated hearing in which a crowd of over two hundred students, parents, community leaders and opposing conservatives alike waited anxiously for the board's final decision.
Supporters of the policy change argued that it was a basic civil rights issue. Those opposed argued that the board was imposing moral choices on their families.
In the end, equal-rights group Equality Florida says it was School Board Members Daryl Flynn and Nancy Robbinson who stood firm and championed protections for the LGBT students and employees at OCPS. Board Members Joie Cadle, Rick Roach and Kat Gordon as well as Chairman Bill Sublette also made a stand and voted in favor of the policy change.
"I think our students and staff now feel they are truly supported and respected," said Board Member Daryl Flynn. "Should they feel threatened, bullied or disrespected in any way due to their sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, they are able to go to school authorities without fear of reprisal."
Michael Farmer, the Statewide Field Coordinator of Equality Florida, insists that equality in school is not a political agenda but rather a critical issue in which young lives may hang in the balance.
Statistics show that LGBT students as well as students who are perceived by their peers to be gay are the most common targets of harassment at school. Nine out of ten LGBT students frequently experience verbal, physical or sexual harassment in their schools. They are more prone to health risk behaviors including smoking, alcohol abuse, drug abuse, criminal activity, sexual risks and running away from home. LGBT high schoolers have a dropout rate nearly three times the national average, and are more likely to attempt suicide.
"If kids can't get support in school, it could mean the difference between whether they live or they die," Farmer told EDGE. "Everyone should be entitled to the same school experience. It's the job of the school board members to ensure that all students, including the LGBT students, are offered the same experience, education and chance to be successful citizens."
Religious Conservatives Oppose Lake County GSA
Unfortunately, in spite of the overwhelming statistics and the millions of Americans who are in support of equality, religious conservative groups such as the Florida Family Policy Council continue to actively fight against any progress and they boldly feed incorrect information to the public in an attempt to stir up misguided fear of the LGBT community.
In a December article published by the Orlando Sentinel, John Stemberger, a Volusia County attorney and President of the Florida Family Policy Council, wrote that allowing transgender students in Orange County to have a "legal weapon" of retaliation against teachers and principals who discriminate against them is a "foolish decision." He also wrote that classrooms have enough distractions without adding another layer of drama and nonsense that will do nothing but detract from educating students.
After losing his fight with the Orange County School Board, Stemberger refocused his anti-LGBT student mission on the Lake County School Board that is currently facing national criticism over what some say is their less-than-fair treatment of LGBT students.
Last year the Board rejected a student’s request to form a Gay-Straight Alliance club at Carver Middle School. The student, 14-year-old Bayli Silberstein, wanted to form the group so students could combat bullying together and have a place where they could be themselves.
Dexter Foxworth, the Director of the Zebra Coalition, agreed with the importance of safe-haven support groups in school.
"Schools with inclusive anti-bullying and harassment policies, as well as a presence of school clubs like Gay-Straight Alliances are factors related to safer schools, better school performance and higher student aspirations," said Foxworth.
Silberstein applied again this year and although the Board has yet to make an official decision regarding her group’s re-application, the school board made national news when it was reported that they are considering eliminating all extracurricular clubs in order to prevent Silberstein’s Gay-Straight Alliance from forming.
Middle Schoolers Too Young for Gay Club?
Lake County Board Member and chiropractor Tod Howard, who describes himself in the Right Side of the Lake blog as "a very independent Republican who is very close to the South Lake Tea Party," said that the LCSB policy must comply with the Equal Access Act, which defines secondary schools as grades 7-12. He also said there is a legality issue because their middle schools are grades 6-8 and he feels their policy should be based on both law and what is best for the students while being age-appropriate.
Howard believes that Lake County schools should have a limited open forum/club policy for high school, which is where he says he would welcome a Gay-Straight Alliance group. But he believes middle school students having equal access to all clubs would be troublesome.
"Students in middle school run the gamut from some still believing in Santa Claus to some being sexually active," said Howard. "I support curricular-only clubs for middle schools."
LCS graduate Aurelia "Rei" McDonald doesn’t agree with the LCSB’s rationale.
"The people who state that a GSA is not age-appropriate conversation for middle schoolers need to realize that supporting a group and telling them they’re okay has nothing to do with the physical actions they fear. It isn’t encouraging bad behavior and it isn’t discussing anything the age group isn’t already familiar with," she told EDGE. "Middle schools and high schools are the places to put gay support groups. That’s where they’re needed so desperately. That’s where kids are sorting themselves out."
But Howard feels that a community outreach is a better avenue.
"Most teenagers don’t have their own transportation, so a GSA provides them the peer-to-peer support during or after school hours," said Michael Slaymaker, president of the Orlando Youth Alliance and founder of the Orlando Anti-Discrimination Ordinance Committee, which worked with the OCPS Board. "Allowing a GSA to formulate is a positive step. If they don’t have the personnel or leadership to facilitate one, they should provide the information to the students on where to find assistance and help. If we need to branch out to Lake County, we will."
Orange County Board Member Daryl Flynn told EDGE that allowing GSA groups and including the LGBT community in non-discrimination policies and practices are ways to improve the learning environment for our LGBT youth.
"Establishing an atmosphere of trust, acceptance and tolerance is key in making all students feel they are valued as individuals and protected," she said. "We have to help our LGBT students know they can talk to someone and discuss any fears or anxiety they may be experiencing."