Archive for the 'Students & Youth Rights' Category

Two Recent Victories for LGBT Rights

By Daniel Tilley
ACLU of Florida LGBT Advocacy

This week witnessed two steps forward in the movement for LGBT equality in Florida. First, courageous students at Booker T. Washington High School in Pensacola successfully established a Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA), the first of its kind in the Escambia County School District.

When students tried to form the club last fall, the school denied their application. The ACLU of Florida intervened, and within days, the school reversed course. Now that the school has brought itself into compliance with federal law, the GSA – which is made up of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students, along with straight allies – can work to end bullying, harassment, and discrimination against LGBT students and others.

As the school’s initial resistance to the club shows, this discrimination all too often comes not only from peers but from the very adults who are charged with protecting Florida’s students. The ACLU of Florida applauds the work of these brave students at Booker T. Washington High School.

In a second recent victory, the Board of County Commissioners for Pinellas County voted 6-1 to approve the creation of a domestic-partnership registry (DPR) in Pinellas County, a county with more than 900,000 residents. Through a DPR, same-sex couples can get access to important protections that would otherwise be denied to them, including access to domestic-partner health-insurance coverage and other benefits through a participating employer plan, visitation rights in medical facilities, emergency notification, and rights to certain medical decision-making.

Although the bundle of benefits is small, these benefits are among the most important a couple can have. The ACLU of Florida and other coalition partners, such as Equality Florida, played a substantial role in this effort. Notably, this victory comes on the heels of eight other DPR victories in Florida, and the ACLU of Florida continues to work successfully with coalition partners and provide technical assistance and support to pass such registries.


Report Card in Apopka

By Derek Newton
Communications Director

Apopka is a small community outside Orlando that is on the verge of being consumed by Central Florida sprawl and suburban planning but its agrarian roots and the impact of the Hispanic community are easy to see.

ACLU Policy and Advocacy Counsel Julie Ebenstein addresses the media in Apopka, FL on May 23, 2012

A stone’s throw from Apopka High School is the HOPE CommUnity Center which, “is dedicated to empowerment of Central Florida’s immigrant and working poor communities through Education, Advocacy and Spiritual Growth.”

As a landmark for immigrant families, it was a perfect setting for yesterday’s ACLU of Florida press conference at which we issued a report card on the unsettling practice of school districts not making clear that Social Security numbers (SSN) are not required for enrollment in public schools. In spite of federal law requiring it, many school districts, including several in Central Florida, are still asking for SSN on enrollment forms without stating the information is voluntary.

The result is that immigrant families may have to choose between sending kids to school and what they think could be in inquiry into the citizenship status of those children or other family members.

 It’s would be a tragic choice especially considering no such choice is necessary. Since schools don’t need a SSN to enroll, there is no reason to put parents and families through that difficulty.

After surveying all 67 Florida districts, the ACLU found nearly half of those districts – 30 in all – received a grade of “C” or lower in how they ask for and handle SSN on enrollment forms. Eleven districts, including a handful in Central Florida, failed outright by making no effort whatsoever to comply with federal law on the use of SSN.  

Based on our report card and press conference, several districts including Orange County (which received an “F”), said they would re-examine their enrollment form for next school year.

Cartoon: Wading into the Inspirational Messages Swamp

Earlier this year, the Florida Legislature passed and Governor Rick Scott signed a law inviting local school boards to allow so-called “inspirational messages” at mandatory school events. The ACLU of Florida and others have warned local districts that allowing organized, sanctioned school prayer and other similar messages may be nothing more than an invitation to expensive litigation.

Guest Speakers in the Classroom

Joyce Hamilton Henry

Director, Mid-Florida Regional Office of the ACLU of Florida

One can clearly agree that the classroom curriculum is greatly enhanced by real life experiences of individuals and experts in the field.  This prepares our students for the real world and a global society.

After months of pressure from a group of individuals led by David Caton, the Hillsborough School Board decided to maintain its existing policy which will allow guest speakers in the classroom.  The Mid-Florida Regional Office of the ACLU of Florida was among several local organizations that supported the Council on Islamic Relations which was at the center of this controversy.  Several local leaders representing a diverse range of perspectives, faith and racial/ethnic groups spoke passionately about the need to provide students with this valuable component to their learning experience.

It was clear that the attempt to change the policy was driven by Islamophobia and bigotry.  The Hillsborough School Board rightly decided not to succumb to bullying tactics from Caton’s followers. Superintendent MaryEllen Elia revised earlier Guidelines which would have prevented advocacy organizations from speaking in classrooms.  On March 30, 2012, guest speakers in the classroom were the only topic of a lengthy Workshop. 

We applaud the Hillsborough School Board and Superintendent Elia for erring on the side of supporting healthy discourse in the classroom and for trusting the good judgment of the teachers guided by a policy that works.

Meet the New Northwest Florida Regional Organizer

Sara Latshaw
Northwest Florida Regional Organizer, ACLU of Florida

Life has certainly changed from the days of speedy mopeds, spicy curries, and the balmy offices of Art Relief International. My time in Thailand as the Executive Director of Cultural Canvas Thailand and Art Relief International has come to an end. While I can say that the transition between two very different worlds is not an easy one, it is something that I could not be more excited about.

Last week, I began my new job as Regional Organizer for the ACLU of Florida. With each passing day, my enthusiasm grows—a likely effect of the contagious excitement to preserve the rights and liberties of others that seems central to everyone working here. The roles that I will be playing our area continue to unfold as I delve into the diversity of projects in which the ACLU is involved.

Half of my time will be dedicated to developing, organizing, and implementing advocacy campaigns to advance and defend the rights of LGBT people in Northwest Florida. My first mission is to reduce discrimination in high schools, working with educators to prevent bullying and facilitate student-led Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs). GSAs will be a fantastic way to make school a safer place for students.

In addition to my work with the LGBT rights, I will be working on other ACLU priority issues, including criminal justice reform, women’s rights, and drug policy reform. I am learning about Florida’s struggle with over-incarceration and the school-to-prison pipeline—issues that I am eager to work to counteract.

I see the work that the ACLU is doing and it is important. I am grateful to be involved with such a thoughtful and passionate organization. While the sunny, bustling ACLU office in downtown Pensacola is a huge change from my life in Thailand, I can say one thing for certain: I feel at home.

Guest Post: So Much for “No” on Everything

Guest Contributor: Peter Schorsch
Executive Editor, SaintPetersBlog

For a moment there, Florida progressives had a winning strategy to defeat several ballot initiatives to be decided this November.

In the progressive’s crosshairs were several proposed measures, including one to prohibit the use of public funds for abortions except as required by federal law and to save the mother’s life and the “Religious Freedom” amendment which would prevent individuals from being barred from participating in public programs if they choose to use public funds at a religious provider.

All told, there are now 11 constitutional amendments that will be on the November ballot.

Organizing and preparing for November, progressives arrived at a simple, smart strategy to defeat these and the other amendments they opposed.  ‘Vote No on Everything’ was the basic concept. Think of it as the political equivalent of Occam’s razor.

Unfortunately, these best laid plans are already for naught.

The Legislature on Friday placed on the 2012 ballot two constitutional amendments that would cut property taxes if approved by voters.

One of the amendments would eliminate property taxes for the surviving spouse of a military veteran who died while on duty or for the surviving spouse of a police officer, firefighter, paramedic or correctional officer killed while on duty.

The other amendment would eliminate property taxes for poor seniors who have lived in their home for at least 25 years.

Who can vote against these initiatives?  Who’s going to oppose helping poor seniors or veterans’ widows? No one, that’s who.

And so Florida progressives’ plan to urge voters to  ‘Vote No on Everything’ no longer works.  After all, you can’t create a bumper sticker which reads  ‘Vote No on Everything Except the Good Stuff.’

Or can you?

Tallahasee and the “Righteous War”

Baylor Johnson
Online Advocacy Coordinator, ACLU of Florida

They call it a “righteous war.”

That’s how one representative on the floor of the Florida House actually described the nationwide attack on women’s health that the Florida legislature has thrown its weight behind. I was sitting in the House Gallery when he said it. This week, I’ve had a front-row seat to see what this war looks like.

For the last four days, I’ve been in Tallahassee working with the ACLU of Florida’s Senior Legislative Associate, Ron Bilbao. In these busy last two weeks of the 2012 Legislative Session, bills are moving quickly out of committees, and legislators are staying on the floor late into the night trying to get their priorities passed. We’ve been working hard to make sure that voices of Floridians that care about the Constitution and the personal freedoms which it protects are still being heard during the frantic end of the session.

It hasn’t always been easy.  Yesterday, the House passed a bill which would let school districts alienate religious minority students by forcing them to participate in school-sponsored prayer at student events. Despite claims by the bill’s sponsor that it wasn’t about religion, just “inspirational messages,” Governor Rick Scott supported the bill by saying, “I believe in Jesus Christ, and I believe individuals should have a right to say a prayer.”

Of course, individuals have always had a right to say a prayer in school – but the Constitution doesn’t allow government to use its power to advance one religion over another, which is exactly what this bill lets districts do.

Constitutionality hasn’t been at the front of many legislators’ minds from what I’ve seen. This week also saw the passage of a bill that would expand suspiconless, warrantless drug testing of state employees, even while a federal judge could issue a ruling declaring the whole idea of government employee drug testing unconstitutional any day now. They also passed a bill banning the “application of foreign law,” code for Shariah law, singling out Muslim Floridians as inherently a threat to law and order and advancing the ugly and discriminatory notion that anything Islamic is un-American.

And then of course, there’s the bill which passed the House yesterday which would shame and intimidate women with junk medical science and further regulate women’s access to safe and legal abortion care out of existence – the “righteous war” one.

It’s not all hopeless. In my time at the capitol I’ve met with legislative staff and other advocates who are working hard to stop the assaults on freedom and protect the rights of the people of Florida. We’ve been able to provide them with information and resources to help them protect your rights. Together, we may yet be able to stop some of these bills from passing in the Senate. In fact, you still have a chance to send a message to your Senators letting them know that you trust Florida women and want the war on women’s health to stop.

The defenders of freedom may be outnumbered at the Capitol, but they are fighting hard for all of us. They understand something that many of their coworkers don’t: there’s nothing righteous about a war on people’s rights.