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Appeals court: Lake County Board to reconsider gay-straight club

Since 2011, students at Carver Middle School in Leesburg have been trying to start a school club called Carver Gay-Straight Alliance, but they've been met with a wall of opposition. The Lake County School Board, the superintendent and administrators employed a number of tactics to reject the club procedurally, but persistent students and the ACLU of Florida may finally get their club.

It's unclear whether the Lake County School District actually opposes the creation of the club, although the students' application was repeatedly denied. For one thing, the application prompted the Board to revise its policy for club formation, as principals were applying it inconsistently.

Once that policy was put in place, the group sent a new application to the superintendent, as was newly required. He denied it, saying the application didn't identify an allowed purpose for the club. Under the new policy, clubs are considered an extension of the curriculum. Allowed purposes for middle school clubs are to "strengthen and promote critical thinking, business skills, athletic skills, and performing/visual arts."

These allowed purposes are much more limited than in high school, where clubs can focus on interscholastic extra-curricular and even non-curricular activities. Moreover, the limits on what purposes are allowed may violate the federal Equal Access Act.

Essentially, under the Equal Access Act public secondary schools that receive federal aid and which allow any non-curricular clubs are required to grant all clubs equal access to meeting rooms and facilities. The school board admits that it receives federal aid and provides the kind of club forums covered by the Act. In past cases, gay-straight alliances have been granted equal access in such cases.

Instead of granting equal access, however, the school district sued in federal court arguing, among other things, that the Equal Access Act doesn't apply to Florida middle schools at all. Their main argument is that Carver Middle School is not a secondary school.

The Equal Access Act defers to each state's definition of "secondary school." During the period of this dispute, however, the Florida legislature repealed its main law defining the term and did not replace it. The federal trial court ruled that Carver was therefore not a secondary school.

The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals completely disagreed. After a review of the dictionary definition and numerous examples of the phrase being used in Florida law, the appellate court was able to determine at least a minimal definition, and it fit Carver Middle School.

As a result, the court decided that the Equal Access Act does apply to Carver Middle School and that the Lake County School Board is required to allow the club.

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