Court dismisses lawsuit against Lake County Schools
TAVARES — A federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit that claimed the Lake County School Board was wrong to reject an application from the Gay Straight Alliance (GSA) at Carver Middle School to be recognized as a school-sponsored club.
“This affirms that the school board, in revising its policy, did not act in any way detrimentally to the GSA and that their policies were drafted to be objective, without singling out any particular group or organization,’’ said Steve Johnson, attorney for the school district.
A group of Carver students sought the recognition in the 2011-12 school year and again in the fall of 2012-13 school year. The 2012-13 application was submitted while the school board and Superintendent Susan Moxley were grappling with issues presented by several groups seeking recognition, including the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and the Kiwanis Club. The Superintendent and school board were concerned that the existing policy was being inconsistently applied.
The Board voted to adopt a new and revised policy with three sections governing clubs – one for elementary schools, one for middle schools and one for high schools. The policy governing middle schools, including Carver, states that all clubs and organizations are an extension of the school curriculum and must be sponsored by the school. They are limited to organizations that strengthen and promote critical thinking, business skills, athletic skills and performing/visual arts and must be approved by the Superintendent.
Shortly afterward, a new application was submitted for the 2013-14 school year. This time, the club charter stated that one of the purposes of the club was “to promote critical thinking by discussing how to address bullying and other issues confronting students at Carver Middle School.” But it did not discuss specifics and was never revised and resubmitted. Instead, there was “a deliberate choice made by the GSA to proceed with litigation that might well have been avoided through the simple process of resubmitting an enhanced application,” U.S. District Judge William Terrell Hodges wrote.
Because the application was not resubmitted for approval and there was no application for the 2014-15 school year, “there is nothing to enjoin the School Board to do or not to do,” Hodges wrote.
“We believe we have a policy that allows us to do what’s right for students, and that includes making sure that at the middle school level our clubs and organizations support our curriculum and reinforce important skills,’’ said Superintendent Susan Moxley. “I am pleased that the court agrees.”
The court also made a distinction between middle and high schools, finding that because Carver Middle School is not a secondary school, it is not covered by the Equal Access Act. That act requires all secondary schools to provide equal access to clubs. Additionally, no other constitutional violations were found.
“The School Board was well within its rights to undertake a complete overhaul of its policies concerning approved or school sponsored clubs, and to draw distinctions based on differences in maturity levels between elementary schools, middle schools and high schools – distinctions not previously spelled out in its written policies,’’ Hodges wrote. “Applying the new middle school policy to the GSA therefore, did not violate the constitutional rights of the GSA members.”
Read the judges full memorandum opinion here.