An intense school board meeting that lasted more than four hours drew more proponents than critics of the Brevard Public Schools guidelines on how transgender and other LGBTQ students should be treated in accordance with state and federal laws.
While civility prevailed, the meeting drew heated exchanges and a vitriolic display of homophobic and transphobic bigotry from some protestors who gathered outside the building before the meeting, according to News 6 partner Florida Today.
Despite not being originally part of the meeting agenda, the focal point of the night was a document, sent to BPS administrators March 1, containing guidance for working with LGBTQ students. The document has been widely circulated since last week by local politicians and the conservative group Moms for Liberty, sparking outrage on social media.
The guidelines state, in part, that students may dress as the gender with which they identify, should be referred to by their preferred names and pronouns, can access locker rooms and restrooms consistent with their gender identities “or be provided appropriate accommodations,” and can participate in gender-segregated school clubs and activities, including sports, consistent with their gender identity.
The guidance, based in federal law and court rulings, was not new — the board passed its non-discrimination policy for LGBTQ students in 2016, and the guidelines have been in development since August — and the board was not taking a vote on the matter Tuesday.
Still, parents, students and activists came to participate in the meeting’s public comment section, responding to calls to action from advocacy groups.
In all, out of more than 40 public comments on the issue nearly twice as many people defending the guidelines spoke versus those opposed.
“We cannot make any promises going forward because we are all subject to state and federal law,” school board chair Misty Belford told the community. “To the point: Are we legally required to do the things on the document? We are, and we will.”
A federal court ruled in August that a Florida school district had violated Title IX protections against sex-based discrimination when it told a transgender student he couldn’t use the boy’s restrooms.
An hour before the meeting, the scene outside the building was already tense. Two groups of protestors of all ages gathered. About twenty people stood in front of the entrance, some holding signs with phrases including “straight & proud” and “Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.”
Some yelled jeers at those standing in favor of the guidelines, calling them “queers” and “pedophiles.”
Those defending trans and LGBTQ rights wore rainbow face masks and held signs reading “trans students matter” and “moms for equality, liberty for all.” They largely ignored the heckling.
Only a few people were allowed inside the board room at any time due to COVID-19 restrictions. Speakers had to sign up on a sheet and wait to be escorted inside. Claire Richardson, a Brevard resident who was outside with fellow LGBTQ rights supporters for most of the night, said some of the anti-LGBT protestors weren’t aware of the sign-up sheet and became angry when they couldn’t come inside.
Those protestors grew belligerent, yelling at both sheriff’s deputies on the scene and the speakers entering the building.
LGBTQ students speak out
Several trans and gay students, parents and advocates spoke in defense of the school guidelines. Recounting first-hand experiences with discrimination and abuse, they highlighted the importance of such guidelines for protecting the dignity and safety of students.
Issues surrounding high suicide and homelessness rates among trans students in particular were also raised, with one speaker calling the “life-saving” guidelines a “bare minimum.”
No students spoke critically of the guidelines at the meeting.
Andrew Triolo, a 16-year-old Satellite Beach High School student who transitioned from female to male, said he experienced discrimination from peers but also staff, including four teachers, after coming out as a trans man. He told the board the guidance in the documents needs to be enforced.
“We are just children going to school,” Triolo said. “We want to learn to make friends and play sports, nothing more. Queer students are no different from other students in our school.”
Concerns over “parental rights”
Speaking against the guidelines were several members of the conservative “parental rights” advocacy group Moms for Liberty.
Members of the group made a point of distancing themselves from the heckling and jeering protestors outside, whom they condemned.
Ashley Hall, the group’s Brevard County chair, said in an interview that the problem wasn’t with transgender people, but with potential abuse and the lack of accounting for students who may be uncomfortable sharing gender-specific spaces with trans students.
“Our bigger concern is the abuse these guidelines could have, not with trans students per se, but those that have malicious intent (or) those students that will take advantage of it,” Hall said.
Though Hall acknowledged the August federal court ruling restricted the school district’s options, she dismissed the idea that the board’s hands were tied.
“They can go back, add our concerns to these guidelines,” she said.
“Parental notifications need to be a part of this,” Hall said. “If my 9-year-old son wants to go to school and wants to be called a different name or by a different pronoun, I as his parent should be aware of that.”
But speakers like Brevard student Rowan Craig argued that forcing staff to “out” students to parents doesn’t protect vulnerable students.
“If a child does not want their parent to know that they are transgender, it is for a good reason. Whether it’s because they face the threat of discrimination or violence or because they’re simply not ready, forcibly outing a child will always be a violation of their autonomy,” Craig said. “While this policy will fulfill a self-serving sense of entitlement in some parents, it does not serve students, which, as you’re so often reminded, is your job.”
Board member Katye Campbell said during board discussion that parents are involved in the process when students wish to change the names and pronouns they go by in school.
District 3 representative Jennifer Jenkins also responded to the idea of a boy saying he’s a trans woman to exploit the rules or assault girls, pointing out that there’s “no forcefield” stopping boys from going into bathrooms and locker rooms currently.
“If you’re so concerned about our straight boys sexually assaulting girls, then maybe teach our boys not to commit sexual assault,” she said.
State Rep. Randy Fine (R—Palm Bay), who last week was critical of the guidelines on social media, vowed that if nothing was done he would take action himself in the legislature.
“If the local politicians don’t fix this, I will,” he said.
“I hope (the school board will) recognize that the bureaucrats work for them, not the other way around, and that they will reevaluate and re-examine some of the egregious policies that these radical bureaucrats came up with,” Fine told FLORIDA TODAY Tuesday.
Asked specifically what he would do, Fine pointed to several bills currently filed in the legislature. House Bill 241 would seek to establish a parental “bill of rights.” Another, H.B. 1475, would ban transgender athletes from women’s athletics.
Separately, H.B. 935 would make performing gender conformation surgery on trans youth a crime and ban trans girls from girls’ athletics teams.
Gina Duncan, director of transgender equality at Equality Florida, said in an interview that trans girls don’t dominate Florida girls sports and that the bills address a non-issue. They follow a series of legislative attempts to reduce trans peoples’ rights that started with the “bathroom bills” restricting access to restrooms, Duncan said.
“We’re in this environment of, ‘How else can we attack the transgender community?’” Duncan said. “And now we’ve evolved to where the next issue is transgender participation in sports, and the problem is that these bills, they’re flawed solutions in search of a problem, because it’s really not about sports. It’s about marginalizing and demeaning the transgender community.”
The Florida High School Athletic Association regulates trans students’ participation in athletics. Students must take several steps prior to joining a team opposite their birth sex, including showing medical documentation and statements of support from friends, family and other connections that they indeed live as the gender of the team they wish to play on.
School Board weighs further discussion
After public comment, school board members reflected on some of the issues raised, reiterating the guidelines were based on state and federal laws, leaving them little wiggle room.
“The truth is that the guidelines which are causing so much controversy today would be our reality whether there was a policy or not,” board member Katye Campbell said. “School districts without an official policy still have to abide by decisions of the federal court.”
‘The problem with drawing a line in the sand is that sand tends to shift,” Campbell said, noting pending cases in the courts and legislation filed in the Florida legislature.
Campbell and Susin, however, signaled they were in favor of addressing the issue of parental notification if a student raised the issue of their gender identity to school staff. Currently, the guidelines say staff cannot disclose that information to parents without the student’s consent.
In a pointed moment, Belford noted that despite the policies and guidelines being in place for some time, none of the potential concerns raised by critics had come to pass.
“We don’t just have accommodations for trans students, we have accommodations for all students,” Belford said. “That is what we have done for decades and will continue to do in Brevard County.”