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Pasco School Board rejects pressure to change rules for transgender students

LAND O'LAKES — After months of mounting pressure from conservative groups, the Pasco County School Board is declining to change the way it deals with transgender student rights and other LGBTQ issues.

Board members on Tuesday rejected the idea of requiring parental permission slips for students to join school clubs, a request aimed directly at participation in Gay-Straight Alliance chapters. They also made clear they will not address demands by some to regulate rest room and locker room use based on a student's birth certificate gender.

RELATED: Religious rights group protests Pasco's treatment of transgender students

The board heard no staff proposals on those issues as it met in a workshop to discuss policies, and members did not ask for any policy amendments.

Instead, the board and administration asserted their support for the status quo as the right approach to treating all students properly and keeping them safe. That means following the district's "best practices" guide on a case-by-case basis.

Unless lawmakers or the courts change the legal landscape, officials said, the conversation is over.

"It's done. That's how I feel about it," vice chairwoman Colleen Beaudoin said of the months-long discussion that gained national attention. "It was clear. Nobody (on the board) debated it. I was ready to. But I didn't need to."

Chairwoman Alison Crumbley agreed.

"At the moment, I'm content where it is," Crumbley said. "I think we made it clear."

Activists, many tied to church organizations, began clamoring for new rules in October, when a Chasco Middle School student who was born female told teachers he is male. He asked to be considered a boy and to use the boys' restroom and locker room.

The school's two physical education teachers objected to supervising the locker room, where children change clothing and may take showers.

They claimed they were threatened to be fired over their stance — something the district denies — and asked for help from the Orlando-based Liberty Counsel, a conservative religious-based organization that has opposed LGBTQ rights and has been called a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. The Liberty Counsel disputes the term.

The two Chasco teachers also turned to the community for support.

Since then, their supporters have grown in number, as have those who back the district's transgender students.

People from both camps have flooded district e-mail in-boxes with messages either demanding change or expressing gratitude for making no change.

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Nearly 200 people showed up for the board's meeting Tuesday, with 75 signing up to speak. The bulk of them wanted to discuss gender issues.

Board members, who had heard the talking points repeated over months, tried to manage the conversation.

They set a strict one-hour limit for public comments and gave priority to speakers who had not come before the board in the past five meetings. They also agreed to hold a closed expulsion hearing before the community input, with Beaudoin announcing the board would not consider policy changes, "If that is what you are here to speak about," just before clearing the room for about 30 minutes.

One result: For the first time since the controversy began, the board heard directly from teens who identified as gender fluid, transgender and transitioning. Several adults yielded their speaking time to ensure the teens had the chance.

The students thanked the board for providing safe spaces in school. They explained that figuring out who they are can be difficult, sometimes unwelcoming, and they expressed appreciation that school can provide needed support.

Maxwell Gibson, a Gulf High student transitioning to male, said he found peers in school recognize and respect him, and suggested the schools do not have a problem in that regard. He was more concerned about having an accessible restroom available near classrooms to avoid losing learning time.

Allana Taylor, part of Sunlake High's Gay-Straight Alliance, said it was important for the board to hear from people who live in the schools daily, rather than the "older generation" who "talk about bathroom policies that affect younger people."

From the other side, speakers continued to ask for a resolution to the problem they saw with allowing children, who they consider confused, to use facilities based on a preference rather than biology. They invoked religion, and called for community votes on the school district's approach.

"You need God," Michael Lerner told the board. "You need to pray to God. We need to help you figure out what to do moving forward."

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Board members contended they had a path forward already. They said they did not need or want to require parent permission for clubs, noting parents already can tell their children — or, if necessary, the principal — which clubs they aren't to take part in.

Parents need to be involved, board member Megan Harding said. And schools need to educate, she added, while following the state and federal laws that protect students.

District officials will continue to refine their procedures, superintendent Kurt Browning said. But that was as far as he expected changes to go, for now.

If the courts change direction, he said, "we may as a district come back in and reconsider."

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at Follow @JeffSolochek.