Flagler County School Board Chairman Trevor Tucker tonight may have been channeling Chief Justice John Roberts, whose votes have gradually shifted toward the center as colleagues on his right flank have edged further right: Tucker this evening, in an unexpected shift, switched votes to provide a 3-2 majority in favor of adding the words “gender identity” to the list of explicit protections in the school district’s anti-discrimination policy.
And in fact Roberts had more than a little to do with it: Tucker switched after reading the 6-3 Supreme Court decision in June that Roberts joined, finding that the 1964 Civil Rights Act’s prohibition against sex discrimination applies not just to women, but to lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender individuals.
“That was my biggest opinion, I read a lot of that opinion,” Tucker said this evening, explaining his vote in a brief interview. At the board meeting, he’d voted without elaborating. He didn’t see himself switching so much as following the law, he said tonight. “What was proposed really mirrors what I think the intent of the Supreme Court was,” he said of the wording to the district’s anti-discrimination policy. He’d also had conversations about the law with Kristy Gavin, the school board’s attorney.
The two words had for a year been at the center of a campaign by a relatively small group of parents and students, with support disproportionate to their numbers, to add them to the district’s protections. The campaign animated numerous school board meetings and pre-meetings with speeches, demonstrations, exhortations and at times displays of bile and insults, almost always from opponents of protections, that stained the board’s reputation and spurred new, stricter rules of decorum.
All along, a majority–Tucker, Janet McDonald, who was chairman until November, Maria Barbosa and Andy Dance–held the line against the change. Last April, freed of the pressures of in-person audiences, the board in tinny silos of a virtual meeting voted 4-1 to keep the two words out of policy. The 2020 election brought two new board members on, Cheryl Massaro and Jill Woolbright, Massaro defeating Barbosa and Woolbright taking the place of Andy Dance, who was elected to the County Commission. Massaro was for the change, Woolbright was not, which meant that a 3-2 vote against would prevail if the rest of the board held to type.
It didn’t. The Supreme Court had ruled in the seminal Bostock v. Clayton County case in the interim. It wasn’t clear whether proponents of the change would succeed in getting the school board to see the policy in that new light. But they pressed on, finding the opening in the Supreme Court’s decision.
“It’s been an amazing evening, I know my heart rate has been up and down and all over the place,” Superintendent Cathy Mittelstadt said at the end of the meeting. It wasn’t clear if she was referring to the vote on gender discrimination–the meeting had also been punctuated with moving moments of silence and tributes to Tom Russell, the Flagler Palm Coast High School principal who died last week of Covid complications–though the vote couldn’t have left anyone’s ventricules idle.
Each of board members, with Tucker’s exception, had laid out her thinking on the policy, Woolbright speaking of the impossibility of singling out a group for protection without singling out all (“bring it on,” Vincent Lyon, the attorney who had run against Woolbright this year and who spoke of the policy to the board this evening, said to that notion). Massaro–who defined the issue as one of “human rights”–and Colleen Conklin urged their colleagues to see this evening’s proposal as an opportunity to put the issue behind once and for all, but on the right side of the law.
Randall Bertrand, whose transgender son’s unhappy experience with a teacher at Matanzas High School had really started the movement that blossomed into the campaign for transgender rights, today spoke as if from a year’s exhaustion in appearing so often before the board and elsewhere on behalf of his son and the greater issue at hand. “Today, you’re going to have the opportunity to vote on Policy 217 in a couple of ways,” he said: the required language, “and the language that I’ve asked for.” He then asked them to consider: “Is your vote meeting the dreams, needs, and abilities of every student? That’s all that I ask, is that you take a moment and reflect on that. I’m not here to tell you how to vote. I spent the last year sharing so much research. Now it’s your turn. So I ask you, just take that moment and think. Merry Christmas.” Bertrand has filed to run for school board in 2022.
Bertrand this time got a significant assist from Kyleigh Ruddy, one of two student representatives on the school board, representing Flagler Palm Coast High School. With notable exceptions, student representatives over the years have tended to keep their contributions in board meetings to happy bromides about their schools, though they’re invited to take part in every discussion. They just don’t have a vote.
Ruddy spoke like a full-fledged board member on Policy 217, implicitly making a point that Massaro–who’s always had her ears closer to students’ grounds than most other adults–had made: that the policy change troubles adults far more than it does those it is intend to protect: students.
Right now we are all living in a time of great uncertainty, and recently, especially for FPC, of grief,” Ruddy said, making an allusion to the death of FPC Principal Tom Russell last week, of Covid complications. “And the only thing that we can be certain of in these times is our dedication to our community and that is something that we can control. We can control how we treat other people. Up here I have 31 pages of 418 signatures of people who support the addition of gender identity to this policy. We say that we’re up here to protect students, yet there’s a group vocalizing their concern and handing over something in physical form that can be done to help a marginalized community feel safer in a time where everyone is dealing with the emotional toll of a global pandemic. The experiences that I’ve gotten from putting my boots on the ground and speaking to people, to real people that this affects, has shown me that there is no reason against this that isn’t riddled with logical fallacies and personal bias. I can say that anything that I really say right now or could say to anybody is truly going to change the mind of anybody who hasn’t made [it] up, but obviously I can say that I’ve met a lot of kind, beautiful and supporting people that would be benefitted by this policy, and I really hope that each and every one of you truly believes that and knows that 418 people have signed.”
One of those people who truly had changed his mind was sitting alongside Ruddy, and was the last word on the issue this evening. After the rest of the board had cast its votes for what was at that moment a 2-2 split, Tucker, ever the man of few but usually decisive words, said: “And the chair votes aye. It is 3-2, this 217 with the parentheses passes.”
The key wording of the policy:
The term “unlawful discrimination” encompasses any unlawful policy, practice, conduct, or other unlawful denial of rights, benefits, or privileges that is based on any legally protected status or classification under applicable federal, state, or local law including but not limited to race (including anti-Semitism), color, religion, sex (sexual orientation, gender identity), gender, age, marital status, pregnancy, disability, political or religious beliefs, national or ethnic origin, or genetic information.