Waymon Hudson

Florida Bully Principal loses his case, but may win the battle

Filed By Waymon Hudson | May 14, 2008 6:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Living, Politics
Tags: ACLU, anti-bullying, Florida, LGBT youth, School Bullying

Florida is in the news again for its anti-LGBT attitudes towards youth. Alex posted about this briefly below, but I wanted to take it a little more in-depth and more importantly talk about how this relates to the recently passed anti-bullying bill in Florida.

A federal judge ruled today that a high school in Florida's panhandle violated the First Amendment rights of students. The case was brought by the ACLU on behalf of a junior at the school who had been forbidden by her principal to wear any sort of clothing, stickers, buttons, or symbols to show her support of equal rights for gay people.

During the trial Ponce de Leon High School's principal David Davis admitted under oath that he had banned students from wearing any clothing or symbols supporting equal rights for gay people. Davis also testified that he believed rainbows were "sexually suggestive" and would make students unable to study because they'd be picturing gay sex acts in their mind. The principal went on to admit that while censoring rainbows and gay pride messages he allowed students to wear other symbols many find controversial, such as the Confederate flag.

Much more after the jump...

"Standing up to my school was really hard to do, but I'm so happy that I did because the First Amendment is a big deal to everyone," said Heather Gillman, a junior at Ponce de Leon High School and the plaintiff in the case.

The case came about after Heather Gillman and other students approached the ACLU about an atmosphere in which students say they were routinely intimidated by school officials for things like writing "gay pride" on their arms and notebooks or wearing rainbow-themed clothing. According to students, problems began in September of 2007 when a lesbian student tried to report to school officials that she was being harassed by other students because she is a lesbian.

Instead of addressing the harassment, students say the school responded with intimidation, censorship, and suspensions. That student testified on Monday, breaking down on the stand as she described the school's indifference to the harassment she experienced.

Judge Richard Smoak issued an order that forces the school to stop its unconstitutional censorship of students who want to express their support for the equal treatment of LGBT people. The judge also warned the district not to retaliate against students over the lawsuit.

I applaud the brave young people who stood up to this blatant discrimination. It is disgusting that they had to do so in the first place. The students have now opened themselves up to more bullying and harassment in one of the most conservative parts of our state. Our community needs to make sure these LGBT students and their allies have the support needed as they move forward after this amazing victory.

But won't Florida's new anti-bullying bill help and protect them?

This is where the ugly truth of the recently passed, Republican sponsored, anti-bullying bill comes to light. The legislation that many groups claimed as a victory is actually almost sure to be useless to these students.

The problem with the bill passed is that it included no enumerations or protected categories. No sexual orientation. No Gender Identity or expression. Nothing. The choice of who falls under the protection of the bill falls to the schools- the same schools like the one in this court case. It falls to the same schools and principals at the core of the harassment of LGBT youth and allies.

It isn't hard to see the giant loophole in the hollow bill and how anti-LGBT schools will use it to its full advantage. Do you think this principal- who has made his bigoted views clear- will push to include LGBT kids in the anti-bullying measure? Not hardly.

So while many groups and websites have declared that "Florida's LGBT youth are now protected", the sad reality is that this was a sham bill put forward by a conservative legislature to block fully-inclusive anti-bullying laws. Our youth are no safer now than they were before.

So while some may be happy to claim hollow legislative victories, I am not. We need to continue to push forward to protect our amazing youth, like the kids in this lawsuit. They are ready to fight for their rights and equality.

How can we be expected to do any less?


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Patently false claims.

The bill does cover sexual orientation because as the bill was passed, the speaker was asked if the bill's general language meant to include gay individuals, and the answer was positive. Thus, it will hold up in trials against failure to protect gay students because the legislative intent of the bill was made clear; anti-gay judges won't have the liberty to interpret the legislation in a manner that excludes them.

Lucrece-

I encourage you to go back and reread the language of the bill itself, not rely on empty statements made on the floor. We all know that "legislative intent" is decided by the judges and the language of the bill itself. Judges use the actual language to decide what a law covers, not promises made by politicians trying to get it passed.

Let’s take the recent Michigan Marriage amendment as an example. The courts said while the people putting forward the amendment stated publicly that they did not intend for the bill to affect domestic partnerships, the language of the bill did in fact repeal those rights. Legislative intent was overridden by the language of the law.

Judges will most likely say that if specific groups were meant to be protected in the bullying bill, they would have been enumerated. In fact, amendments to this bill trying to add SO and GIGE were shot down, as were even the most rudimentary attempts to link the protections of other laws that were enumerated like the hate crimes legislation. That alone blows your “intent” law out of the water. If they intended to protect LGBT youth, they would not have blocked these enumerations.

Even more telling is the fact that the same groups that are claiming a victory with this bill were groups that actually killed this same bill in the past two sessions for not being fully-inclusive. So suddenly fighting for a fully-inclusive bill turns into a cheering for a bill that includes NO ONE? That alone speaks volumes.

We can and must do better. We cannot spread false security and allow sham bills to pass just so groups can claim fake victories to save face for lost battles. Let’s be honest and say that this bill was a loss and we have to change it, not celebrate the fact that we passed a stop-gap, Republican measure to deny LGBT youth protections.

A false claim of security is not security at all.

From the local news:

The legislation specifically prohibits sexual, racial or religious harassment, but the bill's sponsor, Sen. Carey Baker, R-Eustis, said the intent of the bill is to prevent bullying for any reason. The bill has a broad definition of bullying and does not spell out the types of individuals protected, such as specifically prohibiting bullying based on sexual orientation. That had been a point of contention.

So, like, yeah, gays are "included," but sexual orientation isn't mentioned, so it's not like the bill's as good as it could be.

The same protections that work for other types of bullying don't work for sexual orientation based bullying, especially with principals like Davis who are all too ready to look for any excuse to look the other way.

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | May 15, 2008 5:27 AM

Why does this principal still have a job? He has just cost his school district a lot of money in attorney fees. Even in the "Redneck Riviera" they hate to lose money and it strikes me that his school board (elected) had better have a damn good explanation for their electorate of this type of use of public funds.

I assume that this is a Republican county, but it does not need to remain so. What comment does the county Democratic party apparatus have on this? Are there local media outlets giving this any ink?

RG-

This is a VERY conservative part of Florida with little or no chance of Democratic take back at this point. This principal will probably been seen as a local hero and continue to harass his students.

The media has been covering the case, but not enough. These are precisely the examples of anti-LGBT harassment and bullying that people need to hear about.

So while many groups and websites have declared that "Florida's LGBT youth are now protected", the sad reality is that this was a sham bill put forward by a conservative legislature to block fully-inclusive anti-bullying laws. Our youth are no safer now than they were before.

This isn't the first time I've heard this argument advanced. Waymon's not the only one with these exact same concerns.

Didn't the various LGBT groups support a different bullying bill that was fully inclusive (and obvious) that the legislature shot down in favor of this version that doesn't enumerate protected groups? Did any support this version?

Bil, you are exactly correct.

The same groups claiming this empty bill as a victory have had it successfully killed in the past two sessions because it was not inclusive or effective. A fully-inclusive bill was put forward (as well as second one that only had SO, which led to a mini ENDA fight between LGBT groups in the state) and both were shot down.

This bill is quite simply a sham put forward by Republicans so they would not have to include SO, GI, & GE in a bill. And now that this law is on the books, it will be years before we can revisit it and add in the needed enumerations to truly protect our youth.

I think giving our community, especially our youth, a false sense of security just to claim a victory is wrong and dangerous.

Waymon
The courts discounted the words of activists promoting a ballot measure. They did not discount legislative intent - the word of the sponsor of the bill on the floor moments before passage.

And since when did you become a judge in the state of Florida? No one knows what weight the legislative intent will carry until that makes its way through the courts, but legal experts are clear that it's an important tool that can get anti-glbt school harassment cases heard in court.

I think it is cowardly and disrespectful to refer to 'some groups' the way you did in your post. Equality Florida and the Florida Safe Schools Coalition have broken their backs over the last eight years working on the anti-bullying bill and insisting that it include categories of sexual orientation and gender identity and expression. When faced with a bill guaranteed to pass without the explicit categories they worked tooth and nail for all this time, they laid the groundwork through legislative intent to make sure that even this bill, in this form, can arguably be used to protect glbt students.

Our community is going to be making that argument on behalf of students like Heather Gillman who need the court to mandate that their schools respond appropriately to anti-gay harassment and violence. It will really be too bad if you are someone actually joining the principal in Ponce DeLeon in arguing that she has no legal protections at all.

If you want to criticize the messages or decisions of groups working for glbt equality in your state, do it directly. Don't do it by undermining the real victories large and small that are being achieved in protecting glbt students.

Waymon,

Your example doesn't hold because the language of the legislation was contradictory to the legislative intent stated. That gave the judges amplitude in interpretation.

The question with this bill is: Does it include sexual orientation, seeing as how it is very general? The legislature clarified this. No reputable judge will throw away this clarification by the legislature. Read: No high court will accept such manipulation.

It could be argued that there were no enumerations because the bill is meant to cover EVERYBODY. This is not akin to a hate crimes bill, where categories have to be enumerated in order to qualify higher punishment. The purpose of this legislation is to punish inactivity in the face of ALL kinds of bullying.

The reason why most groups killed the other bill version is because it would have granted grounds to start an initiative to demand that sexual orientation be a "suspect class", which would have favored us in same-sex marriage arguments. Obviously, you should be aware that Florida's no jewel when it comes to marriage equality. Yesterday's allies (Democrats) are today's enemies in such a field; it's called politics.

No one knows what weight the legislative intent will carry until that makes its way through the courts

Which is my point exactly, Andrea. To say this bill protects our youth when no one really knows is dishonest. I never said groups haven’t been working hard to get legislation passed here, but to make this bill into something it is not is wrong.

This bill may be a tool used in litigation-years of litigation- that could potentially protect LGBT youth. But to claim that kids are now suddenly safer is patently false. I’m just saying call the bill what it is, warts and all.

You are all wrong about there having been a separate bill with categories in either of the last two sessions. That simply isn't true. In both 2007 and 2008 there has only been one safe schools bill - the Republican sponsored non-category bill - and the Florida Safe Schools Coalition has used every resource and leverage available to amend it to include categories and to demand that those categories include SO, GI and GE. As the bill was seen moving towards certain passage, the coalition worked to insure there would be legislative intent indicating protections for glbt students.

There has never been an SO-only safe schools bill in Florida, and your claim that such a bill was disregarded in the interest of one with full GI and GE expression is simply not true.

In 2006, a Republican-sponsored bill was filed with language that would have forbidden local districts from having any explicit categories protecting glbt student in their school policies, tearing down glbt-inclusive protections in districts across the state. Against all odds the coalition was able to kill this local-policy poison pill language, and ultimately the clock ran out on the bill itself. That year and other years, the bill died in the committee chaired by one Senator Wise, an ultra-conservative North Florida Republican with a long history of anti-gay positions who refused to hear the bill. Hardly the work of your unnamed 'some groups'.

To say that problems are solved for glbt youth facing harassment in schools by this year's bill would indeed be dishonest, but that's not what anybody has said. The coalition, including the ADL, the ACLU, the PTA and Equality Florida, that organized year after year of lobbying statewide, agreed that the new law gives them the strongest tool that has ever been available for pursuing legal action against school districts that fail to protect their glbt students from harassment and violence.

With categories or without, the glbt and allied communities in Florida were always guaranteed long legal challenges to ensure that school districts like Ponce De Leon protect their glbt students. There is no language the legislature could vote on or statute that could ever prevent the entrenched right wing in Florida from trying to dodge, twist to their own ends, or outright challenge the right of glbt students to a safe education. The lawsuits you decry have always been an absolute inevitability. Right now, though, we can move forward into the next chapters of this fight with the strongest legal tools that have every been available in this state. That is absolutely worth celebrating.

Stratton Pollitzer | May 15, 2008 2:31 PM

Waymon, this post is not only factually incorrect, it’s dangerous.

In passing this bill the legislature has guaranteed, on the record, in language that can be submitted in a court of law, that:

1 - Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender students will be protected in “Exactly the same way” that all other students are protected.

2 - Any School that fails to protect LGBT students is breaking the law and will face the consequences.

This law is a powerful new tool to help us protect LGBT students. And with everyone from the Department of Education, to the Legislature, to the Governor’s office insisting that gay and transgender students will be protected, it’s our job to make them live up to that guarantee. The last thing we should be doing right now is claiming, as you have, that schools aren’t required to protect all students.

And even if the new law included protections we would have to keep fighting. Will some school districts continue to resist protecting LGBT students? Yes. But that will be true regardless of what the law says – just as it has been true in every single state that has passed protections for LGBT students – specific or general.

That is why, after close consultation with many other states that have passed anti-bullying laws, Equality Florida formed the Florida GSA Network more than a year ago. We know that passing a law is only the beginning of the fight. Implementation is where the real change occurs. We are building a network of students, parents, and allies from one end of Florida to the other so that when students are not protected, or worse when they face open hostility from their teachers, principals, and school boards, we know where they are and have the resources to support them.

After eight years of work by nearly 100 organizations, gay and straight, that make up the Safe schools coalition we have at last passed an anti-bullying bill in Florida. This is a HUGE accomplishment. Florida has one of the reddest legislatures in the country – Senate: 26 R – 14 – D; House: 77 – R; 43 – D; Governor: R. Just 24 months ago we were fending off a bill that would have repealed every single safe schools policy that specifically protected LGBT students.

The Florida Safe Schools Coalition pushed all the way until the final hours of the session to expand the list of examples of harassment in this bill to include disability, national origin, sexual orientation, gender identity, and ethnicity. And it was because of our fight that the legislature zeroed in on the fact that schools are REQUIRED to protect gay and transgender students.

What we need to be doing now is joining the process to ensure that when this bill is implemented LGBT students are not left out. This bill mandates every local school district implement a safe schools policies, so step one is making the case that those local policies must include LGBT students.

We’ve already started that work. Broward County, the second largest school district in Florida, is in the final stages of drafting their new safe schools policy to comply with the law and is poised to become the first district in the state to include gender identity in their policy. Rather than make the case for our opponents that the new law doesn’t protect gay and transgender students, let’s reinforce the promise that it does, that policies like Broward’s must be the minimum, and that any school or district that fails our students will be held accountable.

Also, as a direct result of our coalition work the Florida Department of Education now holds an annual anti-bullying conference that prominently features the importance of addressing anti-lgbt attacks and attitudes.

Is this bill ideal – no, but it’s also certainly not “Nothing” as you have claimed. It is a powerful new tool for protecting students and a huge accomplishment, especially in a state with a legislature that is nearly 2/3’rds republican in both the house and the senate. We will continue to fight, every day, to make sure LGBT students are safe. We will get every single protection possible under this new law. And if it is not enough, we will return to the legislature and demand more.

Laws don’t guarantee rights, they merely announce them. In passing this bill the Florida Legislature has said loud and clear that LGBT students have an absolute right to be safe in school. I hope you will join us in working to make sure they are.

Stratton Pollitzer
Deputy Director
Equality Florida

PS – Here’s just one example of the powerful legislative intent that is now the official record on this bill. This is from the floor of Florida Senate where the bill passed just hours before clock ran out on another legislative session.

“Does the bill prohibit harassment based on a student’s actual or perceived disability, ethnicity, national origin, gender, gender identity, physical appearance, sexual orientation or other distinguishing personal characteristic in the exactly the same way that it prohibits sexual, racial or religious harassment, which are specified in the bill?”
Sen. Nan Rich (D-Weston)

“Yes it does.”
Sen. Carey Baker (R-Orlando)


Andrea-

You are right about the SO/GI&E. I was mixing my bills (that was the non-discrimination issue). I apologize for that. Thanks for bringing that to my attention.

However, the point remains the same. The bullying bill that was passed with no enumerations is not the victory it is being packaged as. If this was being sold as a stepping stone or a tool to use, then I might accept that (although I happen to think it is actually more harmful than good, but that can be debated).

The need to be very clear about what this bill does is paramount. Saying that the "legislative intent" is clear is not correct. The sponsor of the bill said that they intended it to include LGBT youth. Yet the entire legislative body voted against an amendment to the bill that would have tied the enumerations to the hate crimes bill. Which "legislative intent" would the court side with- one person’s assurance or the voice of the entire body? Who can say. Both sides can make the argument.

And yes, if a fully enumerated bill was passed, there would still be court cases to enforce it. But now we have to take years to define the bill in court, then jump over the hurdles of enforcing it.

I am by no means saying that the groups that worked on this bill are not working hard. But the need to be honest about what was passed is key.

Stratton-

Of course we are all working for the same thing and I am dedicated to that fight. That is why I think it is important to discuss exactly what was passed. Simply look at some of the headlines in the blogosphere and LGBT media (from Queerty to PHB to Express) and you'll see a very surface coverage of the bill that very clearly states that this bill protects LGBT youth. The sound-bite packaging of this as a huge victory is dangerous and misleading.

We need to discuss what we have to do to move forward to get concrete protections passed and enforced. That discussion can never happen if we don't talk about the shortcomings of this bill.

Is it a small step or a tool for greater change? Perhaps. But let’s make sure that message is clear.

David Barkey | May 16, 2008 3:06 PM

As one of the core members of the Florida Safe Schools Coalition, the Anti-Defamation League engaged in extensive advocacy on the anti-bullying bill during both the 2008 and 2007 legislative sessions.

This post apparently misunderstands the nature of legislative intent. While the bullying bill as passed does not specifically enumerate sexual orientation or gender identity, as well as disability, national origin or physical appearance, the coalition obtained essential legislative intent which covers these personal characteristics.

Legislative intent is used by judges to determine the meaning and requirements of a particular statute.

During the Senate and House debates on the bullying bill, we obtained legislative intent reflecting that:

The anti-bullying bill protects all students from any type of bullying.

The list of examples of bullying in the bullying bill is not exhaustive and the bill protects students who are bullied based on actual or perceived sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, national origin or physical appearance.

A school which fails to address bullying based on actual perceived sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, national origin or physical appearance will be in violation of the law.

This legislative intent is a powerful tool to hold a school legally accountable should it fail to address bullying on the basis of these personal characteristics. Furthermore, it is an important advocacy tool in securing comprehensive bullying policies on the local level.

David Barkey
Southern Area Counsel
Anti-Defamation League

The following is from an organizaiton in the United Kingdom:

Why we are here
Press for Change is a political lobbying and educational organisation, which campaigns to achieve equal civil rights and liberties for all trans people in the United Kingdom, through legislation and social change.


This site is here to explain our work, and to support all those who campaign with us to achieve full equality and rights for gender diverse people in modern society.

Nowhere else in the world will you find such a comprehensive collection of information about the trans rights campaign, and details about the legal, medical, political and social issues surrounding the people it represents. If you’re a trans person, we aim to raise your consciousness. If you’re a researcher or a journalist we want you to have everything you could possibly want to report us accurately and fairly. If you’re a campaigner already, we want to provide you with the very best resources. And if you’re not, we’d like to show you what an astonishing challenge we continue to face even though many fundamental forms of protection are now in place through UK law.

It's web site is:

http://www.pfc.org.uk/

The point here being that just because there is protective legislation on the books doesn't necessarily mean that it will be enforced.
The activists working in this country might want
to keep this in mind.

Kay VanNess | July 31, 2009 4:30 PM

I agree that any kind of "Bully " is completely
appalling.Me and other mothers in the panhandle of Florida need help with a TEACHER that is bully children with assault & battery charges and police reports and letter from child services admitting to the teachers horrible behavior and still the teacher is set free. What message does that send our children that bullying is O>K? We need as much exposure about this subject as possible!!!! To let the Representatives know what is happening in the schools in Florida!!!!!
Kay VanNess
985-285-4417
rjnrebl@yahoo.com