For the third time in two months the case of a transgender student at Flagler County’s two high schools became the focus at the monthly School Board meeting of impassioned solidarity by students, faculty and parents, and of their calls for more explicit protections for the district’s LGBTQ students.
For the second time in two months, the only dissenting voice heard–through actual screams, at one point–was that of Charlene Cothran, the Zion Baptist Church pastor who last month and again Tuesday evening insulted the FPC student at the center of the issue by ridiculing his decision to identify as a boy. But for the second time in those two months, the school board, with one exception, was again entirely silent either with support or assurances that the sort of procedures and faculty training requested for regarding LGBTQ awareness would be forthcoming.
The exception was School Board member Colleen Conklin, who said a new policy was not necessary, but procedures within that policy are.
“Personally I think the policy that we have covers all students,” Conklin said. “We shouldn’t be creating a policy to protect African-American students, another policy to protect Hispanic students, another policy to protect ESE students. We should have a policy which we have right now, that protects all students. But we obviously need to look at the way we handle training and the way we handle some of our procedures. Then at the end of the day, aside from all of the loudness of the noise, it should be about student safety. Period. End of story I don’t care what your political philosophy, what your religious beliefs are.”
In an inescapable irony, School Board member Maria Barbosa awarded one of her five monthly “gold star” recognitions to faculty or district employees to Jens Oliva, the Matanzas High School chorus teacher who was at the center of the controversy that started the district’s investigation about the alleged inappropriate treatment of a transgender student in his class, and that led to the student leaving Matanzas for Flagler Palm Coast High School at the winter break. Barbosa awarded Oliva the star, and said nothing about the problem.
“The problem isn’t necessarily that a teacher, that my old choir teacher did that,” Elliot Bertrand, the former Matanzas High School student, told the school board in his first public statement on the issue Tuesday. “It’s that he was allowed to do that without repercussions. There wasn’t an investigation, nothing came of it. And I believe that’s because there’s really nothing in place to stop him from doing that, and there’s nothing that can cause repercussions, and I think that should be in place.” Oliva, who is not known for his modesty, is also the brother of former Superintendent Jacob Oliva, currently the chancellor of K-12 education in the state, perhaps hallowing Jens with a sheen of untouchability.
There were three allegations pertaining to Oliva’s insensitivity or mishandling of transgender issues at Matanzas (and a fourth allegation involving his wife, who is not an employee, though that allegation was somehow included in the investigation of Jens Oliva.)
First, Oliva, Bertrand contended, refused to refer to Bertrand by his chosen name, Elliot, once he had decided to identify as a male in the 2018-19 school year, according to the investigation (conducted not by the district but by a Matanzas assistant principal, in effect a supervisor of Oliva’s.) Oliva said he might have a difficult time with the name “Elliot” since it was his father’s and nephew’s name. He did not explain in the investigation why it would be difficult, though teachers routinely have students whose names echo a close family member’s, and did not respond to an email today asking about that difficulty. Oliva opted to call him “Bertie” or “Bertrand,” to Elliot’s discomfort, even though it had been agreed that he would call him “Eli” or “Lee.” This fall Oliva started calling him “Eli” or “Lee.”
Second, at the start of the current school year, Oliva told the group formerly known as the “Women’s Choir” that it would thenceforth be called Treble, to be “more inclusive of our friends,” Oliva is said to have stated while gesturing toward Elliot and another student who had also changed identification, and who, according to Bertrand’s parents, may have been outed by the gesture. That student, when interviewed, did not feel outed, and most students were supportive or complimentary of Oliva, not recalling the gesture or seeing much in it, though one other student described the chorus teacher in more prickly, heavy-handed terms.
Third, Bertrand, who wears hearing aids, had an anxiety attack when, having trouble with his device, Oliva singled him out to sing on the spot and pushed him to do so even after Bertrand declined. The student felt compelled to leave the class. The next day, Oliva asked Bertrand: “Are we going to have another incident today?” And to the whole class, said: “We’re not going to have another moment today, are we?”–statements Oliva acknowledged making. He told the investigator he didn’t mean to upset Bertrand. (See the investigation in full below.)
The investigation was not conducted until Bertrand’s father, Randall Bertrand, raised the issue before the school board in November. No action resulted from the investigation, which filled more than five typewritten pages on Matanzas stationery whose motto’s first lines are “Make Good Choices” and “Hold Yourself Accountable.”
“At Matanzas there really was only one teacher I felt I could go to to talk to them about anything,” he told the board Tuesday. “And now I feel that way with every single one of my teachers and more administrators. I feel like I could talk to my principal, my guidance counselor, people from the library because they have explicitly shown that they support me in multiple ways. Like my English teacher for example. She double checked what my pronouns were. I greatly appreciated that and told her my correct pronouns. All of my teachers have respected my pronouns, my name, and accepted me. That speaks volumes because not accepting does a great detriment to a child.” He continued: “I cannot change who I am, but I have accepted who I am, and I have multiple people in my life who accepted who I am. And there will be people who don’t accept who I am and I understand that. But that’s their problem and not mine, it’s my life, I’ll live it to the fullest that I can, and the start of that is in childhood with school.”
Public comments had begun almost an hour into the meeting, and several parents, students and faculty members, including Bertrand’s mother, had addressed the board by the time he spoke.
So had Cothran, the dissenting pastor who had sat in her row with a sign that said that she, a former lesbian, had stopped lying to herself–an implication that Bertrand was lying to himself.
“I am not a homophobe,”Cothran told the board. “I am not afraid or have any hatred in my heart towards homosexuals at all. Why? I was one.” (It is as inaccurate to conflate transgender people with homosexuals as it is to conflate gays with heterosexuals, or men with women.) “I want this beautiful young lady—and I refuse to use those pronouns—why, because I know she’s going to change her mind,” Cothran said.
At that point Conklin stopped her, not wanting a repeat of the December meeting when Cothran targeted Bertrand and his family directly. “I’d like a bit of control here, Madam chair,” Conklin asked Janet McDonald. “I’d like to ask that we are not addressing a person.” McDonald asked Cothran to address the board and not refer to any single individual.
So Cothran then referred to “a beautiful young lady who thinks she’s a boy, whoever she is, wherever she is.” More than a dozen people who were sitting with the Bertrands, over three rows, stood up and turned their back on Cothran, who continued to confuse the issue and reduce it to inapplicable comparisons: “I’m saying that I was you, same hair cut, same hoodie, same thoughts. I know and statistics prove that you will, she will, change her mind. She will change her mind. The stats show it, 98% of the time they’re going to change their mind. There is an entire community of young people who have had full transgender surgeries who regret their decision. They become patients for the rest of their lives. Is this what you want in our district, when we begin by changing our policies?”
Cothran, who did not cite a source, was not just inaccurate, It’s the exact opposite. According to a peer-reviewed study published in 2018, conducted in the Netherlands and based on clinical histories of 6,793 transgender people between 1972 and 2015, just 0.6 percent of transwomen and 0.3 percent of transmen who underwent surgery were identified as experiencing regret.
Cothran also objected to comparisons of gays to blacks (as she is). “You can’t tell a gay person by looking at them, they do not suffer the same condition as a black person,” she said. “And therefore having the equality–quote unquote equality act attaching themselves to the Civil Rights Bill of 1964 is a sham and a shame, and it will not go through, and they know it’s not going to go through.” She admonished the board: “Don’t you school board allow this.”
The statement about the Civil Rights Act rankled a district faculty member. It “almost made me come out of my seat and up to the podium,” the teacher told the board. “To say that if you can’t tell across the street that someone should be protected is absolutely and totally false. I am Jewish. You can’t tell across the street I’m Jewish but I’m protected under the Civil Rights Act. So to say that it’s a visual thing is literally absolutely ludicrous. My people have been slaves for thousands of years. My great-grandparents were in concentration camps and have numbers tattooed on their arms, so don’t dare proselytize to me about who and who should not be be covered under the Civil Rights Act.”
At the end of the meeting Cothran again spoke, claiming parents have “revolted” at school board meetings in New Jersey because they’re allowing “transgender ideologies to be taught as a curriculum in public schools.” Parents will wake up and will be at the voting booth.” She then started screaming—Howard Dean style— “and I’m here to awaken Flagler County parents, where are you, why am I the only one here, where are the churches at? Wake up and come down and speak to this fine board to let them know that these ideologies will not be added to our school board policies.”
“I don’t do well when people yell and scream at me in a meeting,” Conklin said not long afterward, in her own closing comments to the board. “It’s not appropriate. And at the end of the day, as school board members – I said this of the last school board meeting, I’ll say it again – we should not allow ourselves to get sucked into a political debate on this issue, the religious debate on this issue. The only thing we should be focused on is to the safety, that’s it.”
The students or recent graduates who had spoken that evening had addressed that very issue.
Sarah Young, a recent graduate told the board that more than half male transgender adolescents attempt suicide. “Which is pretty scary considering my best friend is actually a trans guy,” the graduate said. Young’s numbers were accurately based on a peer-reviewed study published in Pediatrics, the official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, in October 2018. The study’s findings, based on surveys of over 120,000 adolescents ages 11-19 collected over 36 months up to May 2015, were disturbing from every angle: Nearly 14 percent of adolescents reported a previous suicide attempt, but female to male adolescents had a 50.8 percent rate of attempted suicide. (Adolescents who identified as not exclusively male or female had a rate of 41.8 percent; male to female adolescents had a rate of 29.9 percent.)
“I’m a recent graduate of the FPC,” Young said, “and I always had really good experiences with the teachers there. But it really shocked and sickens me to hear that a student at the school that my little sister goes to now was treated in such a disrespectful way, because I feel like teachers should want to nurture and love students in the district should of course support that need to nurture and respect students. It was very upsetting to read that article, [that a] teacher is allowed to do that and the fact that teachers are allowed to just decide they don’t have to respect a student’s pronouns or name or gender or whatever reason. It could have been as simple as they didn’t feel like it or they have a political belief or religious belief. It’s very much part of a larger issue of students not being respected in schools when they are identified as LGBTQ. So I just really believe that there needs to be policies in place to protect those students whether they’re gay, lesbian, bi, trans, or any other form of identity in the community.”
Procedures do seem to be changing in the schools. When Jennifer Betrand, Elliot’s mother, spoke to the board about her son’s recent weeks, she described a much brighter atmosphere. Last week, Elliot was issued a new school ID despite the fact that he’d been issued one the previous week. But that one has his name on it: “Elliot Bertrand.”
“In doing so,” his mother said, “he was referred to as a trendsetter since he is the only student so far who has received this. This also gives us hope that in the future of the chosen name of the transgender student could be administered to their Schoology and Skyward.”
The family, she said, “have made many, many new friends,” but the ultimate goal is still to adopt better procedures, Jennifer Elliot said. “We know there’s a policy in place. We want the procedures and the guidelines to be implemented to the teachers and the staff so that they receive training on how to assist our LGBTQ youths. And in closing remember this. Only 26 percent of LGBTQ youths say they always feel safe in their school classrooms and only 5 percent say that all of their teachers and school staff are supportive of LGBTQ people. I think we can do better.” (Those numbers are drawn from the 2018 LGBTQ Youth Report, a survey of some 12,000 youths ages 13 to 17, conducted by the Human Rights Campaign and the University of Connecticut.)
Savanna Dacosta, a student at FPC who described to the board what it’s like to be shunned at school, cautioned the board about the larger consequences of what message it intends to send: “I grew up in Flagler schools all the way from year one, and I have been proud to say that I’m from Flagler County,” Dacosta said. “I go to conferences all over the state, I actually just attended one at FSU last summer, and they’re like, where is [Flagler] at? I’m so excited to tell them. Now please allow me to continue wanting to say that.” And referring to Cothran’s placard, she said: “Very commonly we might see some slogans along ‘not lying to ourselves.’ But the reason that we are here is because a very dear friend of mine decided to stop lying to himself.”