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Transgender student policies continue to draw backlash in Pasco

The conservative Liberty Counsel has offered to help the Pasco County school district rewrite its rules on gender issues, something the district hasn't been interested in pursuing.
Published Jan. 7

The Pasco County school district's posture on the treatment of transgender students has continued to generate heated debate, even as district officials have worked to offset criticism by stating their reliance on federal rules and court precedents.

During several recent meetings, a group of residents has asked the board to restrict restroom and locker room use to a student's birth certificate gender. They also have demanded the district not penalize employees who refuse to monitor areas where transgender students are changing or showering, among other concerns.

A second group has pressured the district to hold its ground in protecting the rights of all students, regardless of how they identify themselves.

The Orlando-based Liberty Counsel has joined the side of those pushing for the rights of non-transgender students and teachers who might have privacy concerns relating to the rules and school experiences.

Some of the issues relate to a situation at Chasco Middle School, where a student who identifies as male asked to use the boys' locker room during physical education classes. The school's P.E. teachers said they did not want to supervise the locker room, and said they wanted to inform all parents and students of the transgender child's presence — something the district said would violate that student's rights.

Just before winter break, the Liberty Counsel aimed to up the ante by making a renewed set of demands on the district. It set a Jan. 18 deadline by which it wants the district to take several steps, including:

- Written confirmation it will not retaliate against any teachers who are "standing for the dignity and privacy of all students and the rights of their parents."

- Written guarantee that no teachers will be required to use "false gender pronouns" for any students, or to supervise single-sex restrooms or locker rooms where students of the opposite gender are permitted to shower or change.

- School Board rejection of its gender-support plan, replacing it with a policy "recognizing biological sex as the standard for district single-sex facilities and programs."

- Adoption of a new policy requiring parental permission for all club participation.

- Written confirmation that the district "prohibits all classroom LGBT political activism, specifically the drag queen coloring books."

- Requirement that school psychologist Jackie Jackson-Dean make publicly available her library of LGBTQ materials. The district has taken the position that the materials are not public record, as Jackson-Dean purchased and maintains them privately, and not with district funds or on district grounds.

School Board members have shown limited interest in changing the district's approach, which superintendent Kurt Browning has repeatedly stated is designed to respect every student's rights.

Board attorney Dennis Alfonso meanwhile has reminded the board that it already has several anti-harassment policies in place that relate to gender, as well as race, religion, national origin, disability, age and marital status.

He added in a memo that while it is true the board does not have a policy specific to transgender issues, neither does it have separate rules for other protected groups. It has been up to the administration and staff to develop procedures consistent with existing policy, as well as state and federal law, Alfonso wrote.

People seeking change have said they expect to continue attending board meetings to make their case.

CONTRACT TALKS: United School Employees of Pasco officials are sounding cautious in their assessment of how much success their next round of bargaining might yield, as they work out the scheduling details.

Union president Don Peace said he enters each session with the knowledge that a deal could emerge.

At the same time, he and chief operating officer Jim Ciadella said they know the sides face significant differences on key issues. Money is only one sticking point.

In fact, they said, one-year salary and benefits decisions might be the easiest-to-resolve and least-consequential matters still on the table. Differences over evaluations, layoff protocols and training requirements cut more to the core of employment protections that teachers deserve, they suggested.

On layoffs, for instance, the district wants to remove seniority as a factor. Its proposed language restates statute, which reads, "A district school board may not prioritize retention of employees based on seniority."

The district team has suggested that means years of service may not be considered.

"We do not accept that. We do not accept it at all," Ciadella said, suggesting that seniority could be used as a lesser point, after evaluation status has been reviewed, as state law mandates.

The differences could result in the teachers unit not completing its contract, with a different result for school-related employees.

Peace said he did not know if the union would be willing to sign off on one deal without the other. They haven't done so in the past.

But he did not want to prevent lower-paid workers, such as bus drivers and custodians, from getting raises as soon as possible.

The details should become more clear in a couple of weeks. The sides are looking at meeting again on or about Jan. 14.

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at jsolochek@tampabay.com or . Follow @jeffsolochek.

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