The United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit ruled Tuesday that a Florida school board should have allowed students at a middle school to form a gay-straight alliance. The decision hinged on whether the middle school counted as “secondary education.”
During the 2011–12 school year, students at Carver Middle School submitted an application to approve the Carver Gay-Straight Alliance. The first application was denied, but it was approved at the end of the following year in time for students to meet three times during the last month of the school year. Then, in August 2013, the Lake County School Board approved a new policy limiting middle school clubs to organizations “that strengthen and promote critical thinking, business skills, athletic skills, and performing/visual arts.”
Students’ new application for the Alliance included as one of its goals “to promote critical thinking by discussing how to address bullying and other issues confronting students at Carver Middle School.” The School Board rejected the application because the Alliance was “not an extension of the school curriculum.” The students sued.
A district court ruled back in 2015 that the case was moot because the school year had passed and not ripe because the students could have just submitted another application. That court also concluded that the Equal Access Act, which generally guarantees gay-straight alliances can form so long as other clubs are allowed to form, did not apply because Carver Middle School was not “secondary education.”
The Eleventh Circuit disagreed on all three counts. The case became ripe, they concluded, as soon as the Board rejected the application. Whether the students could have successfully resubmitted doesn’t matter if the first rejection was a violation. And even if the students who originally sought to form the Alliance are no longer students, it should still be made clear that such a club should be viable.
The decision also addresses the matter of whether the middle school “provides secondary education.” The Board argued that Florida lawmakers voted in 2013 to repeal a law defining “secondary schools” as “schools that primarily serve students in grades 6 through 12,” signaling that they meant to limit the term to high school students. The Eleventh Circuit decided that the term should refer to any school that provides courses that count toward a high school diploma. Florida law requires middle schools to provide at least one high school math class, and Carver offers Algebra 1, so the Equal Access Act applies.
This an important victory given that young people are coming out at increasingly younger ages. The entire reason students originally proposed the Alliance is because they were already confronting anti-gay bullying at school.
It’s unclear if there are students at the school ready to propose a new Alliance, but they have time to figure that out. The Eleventh Circuit referred the case back to the district court to issue a ruling in their favor.