The culture war over transgender students hit the Pasco County School Board on Tuesday, with dozens of residents turning out to deplore the district's stance allowing students to use the restrooms and locker rooms of the gender they identify with.
"Our gender is not assigned. We are created male and female. God is good," resident Harry Chamness told the board, to a chorus of amens from the audience. "I trust that you will do what is correct, not what is politically correct."
The crowd was motivated by a situation at Chasco Middle School, where a student who identifies as male has been permitted to use the boys' locker room during physical education classes. The locker room has showers, which officials have said students do not use, and children change clothes in there.
P.E. teacher Robert Oppedisano, a fellow church member of several people attending the meeting, has refused to monitor the locker room, saying he does not feel comfortable watching over a transgender student who was identified as female at birth. Feeling threatened for his job over his position, he turned to the conservative Liberty Counsel to protect his rights.
The Liberty Counsel has spread its version of events through alt-right websites such as The Federalist, and it has gained traction on social media statewide and nationally in recent days.
Superintendent Kurt Browning told the board Tuesday that the internet is "burning up" with misinformation.
"I want the board and the public to be clear. The teacher coach has not been disciplined at all, in any way shape or form," Browning said, noting the Chasco Middle administrators have monitored the locker room for Oppedisano, whom he called an excellent teacher.
Students "do not undress in the locker room," Browning continued. "There are showers but no one takes showers. … There have not been any issues on this at Chasco Middle."
He said the district provides services to all students who need them, as do districts throughout the nation. He called upon School Board attorney Dennis Alfonso to explain the legal framework for the district's procedures and rules relating to transgender students.
Alfonso said federal guidelines, laws and court precedents — including a recent case from St. Johns County stating schools could not force a transgender student to use a restroom based on birth certificate — drive the district's position.
But the crowd, some of whom suggested district officials were lying, was having little of it.
They urged the board to adopt a rule similar to the Marion County School Board, which requires students to use the restroom of the sex on their birth certificate. Along with that, they asked for single-stall restrooms that could protect the privacy of all involved — the transgender students who might feel uncomfortable, and other students who might not wish to share the space with them.
"Create policy with privacy for all in mind," parent Deena Driver said.
They called for policy to protect teachers from having to supervise locker rooms with transgender students, if they choose to refuse. Some pointed out that an accusation of wrongdoing against the teacher, whether true or false, could have devastating consequences.
They also pressed the board to require parental permission for children to participate in school clubs, an offshoot issue stemming from concerns about LGBTQ and Gay-Straight Alliance organizations. Some parents have said the clubs have referred children to outside service providers that have not been vetted by the district, and that they have been denied information about the organizations.
"It is impossible to know what your child is doing if I have been robbed of my voice as to what she is doing," parent Lorene Stongner told the board.
School Board members were reticent to discuss their views on the subject, saying they wanted to learn more.
"According to what my attorney said, we have to meet federal law. At this point, that's all I know," chairwoman Alison Crumbley said. "I'm going to look into some of their requests, see what we are doing and if these are even things the board would want to take up, or that we are even able to."
"I will listen to everybody," added board member Cynthia Armstrong.