Flagler County School Board member Jill Woolbright wanted to know, “in black and white law and not gray,” if the school district could know that a student had changed gender identity and not tell the student’s parents.
The simple answer is yes, in most cases, though it’s not airtight, Kristy Gavin, the school board attorney, told her this afternoon in the context of the latest in what has now become an 18-month epic over LGBTQ procedures in Flagler schools–and one epically out of proportion with the problems, if any, that those procedures are causing.
As it turnes out, it’s really not the problems Woolbright was concerned with, since there aren’t any. It’s not even the children, who seem to have it together ion that’s core, and whose back, Woolbright said, she’d always have if any one of them was ever less safe than any other.
It’s the parents who are a bit disturbed over it, and over one thing in particular: that knowing thing, or potentially not knowing that their child is hiding their sexual identity from them.
That’s what was at the root of Woolbright’s call last month for a workshop on the district’s LGBTQ procedures. Since that call, the workshop’s central point took on a few more tributaries, such as parental fears about transgender students using a bathroom not of their birth sex, a common fear associated with discussion about transgender rights. But the central point remained, and Gavin tried to address it this afternoon.
She gave a precedent by way of example: state law regarding unwed pregnant minors. “That statute specifically states if the minor child when they’re pregnant, does not want their parents to know, and they have notified the school, we’re not permitted to tell the parent. We are only permitted to tell the parent in that type situation when we believe that there is an emergency, medical emergency safety issue and then it could be disclosed,” Gavin said.
No one has ever taken to school board podiums or daises to challenge that law (though legislators have frequently attempted to nullify it). “Likewise in this situation,” Gavin continued, “when it comes to a student who is apparently finding themselves to be considering themselves to be in the LGBTQ community, where they are concerned with coming forward to their parent and they are indicating a safety concern they don’t feel safe, having to disclose that to their parent, that is where the privacy right protection comes in.”
But it isn’t airtight: parents have a right to access their child’s records. The records may reflect the child’s identity. There’s nothing the district can do to stop parents from finding out that way, through the records. “Any and all plans that are in place, they would be able to have access to this information,” Gavin said. And a student can’t legally change their name without parental consent. But the district itself will not actively out the child.
“Christy, just just yes or no,” Board member Colleen Conklin asked. “Is it illegal to out a student, yes or no?”
“Yes, we could be finding yourself with a lawsuit,” Gavin said.
“I’m very concerned about this conversation for a couple of different reasons,” Conklin said of the larger discussion that had unfolded this afternoon, echoing many of them like it in previous months. “One, it seems to have created some hysteria. And I don’t know how else to say that but other than some hysteria, some of the conversations that are taking place are feeding into this hysteria and they’re just not based on federal law, and they’re not giving the whole entire perspective. So I think it’s great that most of the folks that have spoken today grew up in an intact family grew up in a loving, nurturing environment.
“I applaud the audience members coming forward and sharing what their feelings are if their child were to come out, or that they would welcome the conversation that their child would be safe doing that. The bottom line is, and the simple fact is that not all students are in that environment. You may not like that, we may not like that but that’s the reality of the situation. 40 percent of of LGBT students, 40 percent of homeless youth are LGBT youth because they got either kicked out of their house or there was violence against them.” (Conklin appeared to be quoting from findings by True Colors United, an LGBTQ advocacy organization, which reported that up to 40 percent of youth homelessness is estimated to involve LGBTQ individuals. But the figure is not based on an actual survey, but rather extrapolated from metrics, a less reliable way of reaching numerical conclusions. But there is little question that LGBTQ youth are disproportionately more prone to be homeless than non-LGBTQ youth.)
“So at the end of the day, we want to say it’s not about being right or left or any of that, the end of the day that this is about student safety,” Conklin said. “That’s it. It’s only about student safety. That’s it. students deserve to come to school and be safe. And we have an obligation to follow the law. Now if the law changes, then, then what we’re looking at, will be amended and it will change.”
By then, members of the public–more than a dozen from some 70 people who turned up–had had their say, for and against the district’s procedures, recasting in slightly different different many of the same perspectives (and misinformation and the occasional offense) the board has been hearing for a year and a half on this issue, and a district administrator had presented his outline of current practices in the schools, and how they came to be.
That task was John Fanelli’s, the former Wadsworth Elementary principal and 2015 Principal of the Year in the district, and now the district’s coordinator of student supports and behavior.
He described his presentation as “equity supports,” and how the district’s approach evolved over the past two years, starring with his and others’ attendance at a conference, research of federal law, particularly Title IX–the civil rights law that prohibits discrimination based on sex and that the Supreme Court recently expanded to include, in the definition of sex, transgender identity–analysis of other districts’ approaches and the development of plans. Those procedures are relatively of recent vintage.
“We are currently in the process of ongoing training to make sure that we have consistent practices and protocols across our district,” Fanelli said. “We are also continuously monitoring both state and federal age legislation to make sure that we are staying in compliance with state and federal laws. One of the bills that we are currently following is the Parent Bill of Rights,” at the state Legislature, a bill that could change how districts may or may not protect a student’s sexual identity. “We know that that bill will have a direct impact on the equity supports that we currently have in our district and we will, if that bill is signed into law, we will work to adjust our equity supports to make sure that we continue to stay in compliance with both state and federal law.”
Several speakers seemed put off by Flagler schools finding some guidance for the language of its procedures from Equality Florida, the LGBTQ advocacy organization. The organization was variously maligned this afternoon, starting with its name (it was referred to as “Equity Florida.”) Patty Quick wondered if the district was in a “partnership” with Equality Florida. She called Policy 217 “a dangerous route to go” and claimed “parents are vehemently protesting these policies at other school board workshops meetings across the country.” A few are, but the it has by no means been a movement.
Like many people speaking about the policy, Terrie McDonald started by saying she has “zero problems” and no “animosity toward the LGBTQ community,” only to proceed to lay out her problems and animosity toward the district’s LGBTQ policies. In the very next sentence, she said: “You have created a policy that now invites real problems for the students and for the faculty to who have to administer the policy.” She repeated the approach, saying she believed every student has the right to use the bathroom “consistent with their gender identity,” only to then make the baseless claim that students could falsely use their gender identity “to gain access to the opposite sex bathrooms and locker rooms for nefarious reasons.”
In fact, a UCLA study in 2018 found no link between transgender bathroom and locker use and either safety or privacy issues. If anything, evidence points to the reverse: it’s transgender children who are far more at risk of being sexually assaulted because of bathroom restrictions disallowing them to use the bathrooms of their choice. Some speakers this afternoon referred to the only allegation so far of a girl allegedly assaulted by a “gender fluid” boy in a bathroom–the case of a kindergartener who claimed a boy followed her into the bathroom at a Decatur, Ga. school in 2017 and assaulted her. The Decatur district had not properly investigate the matter, and the Department of Education under Donald Trump–who had scrapped Obama-era transgender rights–discredited the claim. Nevertheless, it was repeated this afternoon.
Speakers also routinely conflated numbers addressing sexual assaults involving gender-binary individuals with claims about transgender students, though there’s no question that “heterosexual” students are victims and perpetrators of assaults on each other at alarming rates: the Youth Behavior Surveillance survey of 2018 puts the rate of sexual assaults of teen girls at 15 percent, of teen boys at 4 percent.
Bathroom and locker room use by transgender students was one recurring concern. The other was current policy that forbids school district employees from revealing, or outing, a student’s sexual orientation–not just to other students or staffers, if that’s the student’s choice, but also to the student’s parents or guardians. The policy is in place as a protective measure, and follows the same principle as protective measures in place when school staffers suspect that a child is physically or sexually abused at home: staffers are required by law to report the detection to the Department of Children and Families, not to the child’s parents or guardians, since they may be the source of the abuse. Similarly, protections regarding na child’s sexual identity are intended to protect against parents or guardians to whom such an identity may be an offense. It is an attempt to protect the child against potential retaliation, abuse or shunning and expulsion from home: a disproportionate number of homeless youth are from the LGBTQ community.
To Kathy Schneider, “This is a purely evil attempt to break up the family structure, parents have not only the right, but the obligation to care for their children and to teach them what they believe is in the best interest of that child.”
When Randall Bertrand, the parent of a transgender son and a candidate for the school board, went up to the podium, he brandished his “Gay Agenda”–an actual notebook with those words written in rainbow colors on the cover. “Just wanted everybody to know that I consulted the Gay Agenda before I did my public comment today,” he said, before addressing some of the parents’ concerns. He compared fears of transgender students to “the boogeyman,” or “something that we tell our children to scare them into compliance. The boogey man only has power if we believe it.” And, he noted, if a child is keeping something from their parents, “perhaps we should consider why.”
Jearlyn Dennie, the pastor and the mother of seven children, would later excoriate Bertrand over his boogeyman remark, saying “the boogey man raped my daughter in a Flagler school restroom,” upending her daughter’s life since. But Dennie, too, appeared to be conflating the issue: there’s no question that sexual assaults take place among students, but the “boogeyman” Bertrand was referring to, that other speakers alluded to this afternoon or often allude to in such debates here and elsewhere, is alleged to be the transgender impostor. (Dennie did not respond to questions asking for clarification.)
Most of the comments were relatively civil and respectful, presented, however short on evidence, as points of view. Some were not. Sandra Schultheiss , for example, equated not telling a parent about a child’s gender identity to a parent not telling the district about a child’s wish to kill a “transvestite” teacher before referring to transgender students as “somebody with a sick mind” and proposing portable toilets for everyone. Gail Dukes referred to LGBTQ as “nonsense” and said none of it existed when she was growing up in the 1950s.
“This is a workshop really without a problem, because the kids don’t have a problem,” Mike Cocchiola told the board. “I really speak for my daughter who is a professional high school teacher in St. Johns County, and I taught high school earlier in my career. There never was a problem, even back in those days, and today my daughter tells me the kids don’t care. What they care about is if you’re a good person. If you’re a good kid, they don’t care whether you’re gay or transgender or anything else. If you’re good, you’re good.” He applauded the board for approving policy 217 as it did in January, and noted that there hadn’t been a lawsuit resulting from transgender students in schools.
Woolbright said today the aim of the workshop was to address “unintended consequences” of the procedures, though she too took issue with Equality Florida, the LGBTQ advocacy organization that has helped organizations develop LGBTQ-friendly (and law-compliant) policies and procedures around the state. Woolbright described the organization, quite inaccurately, as an “extreme group” (a term usually associated with militancy and violence), and more accurately as “very, very political,” Equality Florida’s lobbying for LGBTQ rights being its mission.
“They’re definitely after the right wing agenda,” she said, a statement accurate only to the extent that the organization combats the “right wing agenda”‘s currently active attempt to rollback LGBTQ rights from gay marriage to transgender rights. “Any child is mistreated, I will be there to cover or will have their back. So it’s not about that,” Woolbright said. “It’s about respecting all, and the biggest thing that I’ve heard, and I continue to hear and we’ve heard today, is that parents should have the final say and what goes on in their family.” (In fact, even in matters unrelated to LGBTQ rights, parents do not have the final say: whether in matters of education (parents may homeschool, but they may not choose not to school their children), health, neglect or abuse, the law does.
Citing its reliance on Equality Florida, Woolbright said the district should not be into partisanship–then promptly proceeded to cite three highly partisan right-wing political organizations “to give a balance to this position,” each of them advocating for “parents’ rights.”
“One of the issues, and one of the culture changes that we’re working on is transparency in this district,” she said. “Another is retribution so that employees can speak up and speak their mind, and we should as adults, be able to set an example before our children to be able to talk about all sides of an issue without name calling, without hate, and without calling people haters.”
“This is not equity. This is special exception,” School Board member Janet McDonald said before reducing transgender decisions to confusion. “We should not be doing these carve outs for a temporary or up flexible or at an even a new way to exist in the, in the world,” she said.
Cheryl Massaro, who joined the board with Woolbright at the last election in November, acknowledged several points that had been made until then, but said recognizing the importance of engaged parents doesn’t diminish another reality.
“Unfortunately, there are many on the opposite end of that chart,” Massaro said of disengaged parents. “And a lot of them here, right here in Flagler County, believe it or not, they’re here, and they don’t necessarily care about their kids. Look at the juvenile crime. Just look at juvenile crime in Flagler County. Unbelievable.” An LGBTQ’s child confronting such a parent may not be safe: “If they even mention the fact that they may be gay, or they feel these different feelings, they don’t feel like they’re in the right body, a parent will beat the crap out of that kid, because it’s not right, because it’s not acceptable. And I don’t think there’s a person in this room would want to see that happen to any child.”
Massaro spoke of her recent experience in a local school: “Last school year, I was presented with the opportunity to work with a transgender youth atone of our high schools, through a colleague who was a teacher, was petrified, petrified to tell her family. Didn’t want to tell her father. It’s real, for fear that she was going to be physically hurt. What do you do with that situation? Where do you go for help?”
Finally, Conklin reminded the audience that LGBTQ students weren’t born yesterday, nor has the district’s accommodations been of only recent vintage. We have been dealing with these situations, truthfully, for the last 20 some odd years,” she said, paralleling her years on the board. “We’ve had these situations over the last 21 years. We’ve handled them in privacy with families. We’ve made private arrangements with families and students. And not always with families, sometimes just with students to make sure that they’re safe. Having a procedure in place, allows all teachers, staff to understand expectations. To understand what actually is law, to try to remove opinion bias, unconscious or conscious that we might have.”