Religious rights group protests Pasco's treatment of transgender students

Pasco County School Board members heard concerns about transgender student rights and student club participation during an Oct. 17 public meeting. [JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK   |   Times]
Pasco County School Board members heard concerns about transgender student rights and student club participation during an Oct. 17 public meeting. [JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK | Times]
Published Oct. 25, 2018

A prominent religious rights advocacy group has targeted the Pasco County School District as Florida's next flashpoint over transgender student rights.

In a news release labeled "FL School's Shocking Plan," the Orlando-based Liberty Counsel late Wednesday chided the district for its use of a "best practices guide" to work with LGBTQ students and urged the School Board to rein in the "rogue employees" who follow the guidelines.

The guide encourages district employees to refer to transgender students by the pronouns they use and allow them to use the restrooms that match their gender, not their "sex assigned at birth."

"You can't require people to call you what you're not," said Liberty Counsel attorney Richard Mast. "We hope that the Pasco County School District does the right thing."

District officials stood by the guidelines, saying they are following laws, rules and legal precedents regarding sex discrimination.

THE GRADEBOOK: All education, all the time

The dispute arises as the Trump administration considers revising the federal definition of gender to a person's physical anatomy at birth — a move that has outraged LGBTQ activists while gaining favor with the Republican base.

Sensing such a push might arise, members of Pasco's Pride organization, which held its inaugural festival earlier this month, tried to preemptively urge the School Board to hold its ground during comments at a recent public meeting.

"I think there's a lot of misconceptions when it comes to the things that go on in Pasco County schools, and a lot of misinformation that's being spread among parents that's just not true," said Heather St. Amand, who said her transgender child attends Land O'Lakes High and has had a "good school experience."

The district does not have a set policy on transgender issues, dealing with each situation separately based on individual circumstances. That's similar to many other districts, including Pinellas County.

And for years, Pasco's approach has appeared to work. Though heavily conservative, the county has largely accepted groups such as nudists in Land O'Lakes, or cross-dressing men in southwest Pasco.

So instances such as transgender dance royalty at Fivay High, and a transgender teacher at Mitchell High, largely have gone by without problems. Questions about restroom use and other related matters rarely have risen to the level where the School Board was compelled to get involved.

RELATED: Pasco teacher announces plan to change gender (w/video)

But the current scenario is headed in a different direction.

The issue arose in September, 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.

"I told them (Chasco administrators) I have an issue with it," teacher Stephanie Christensen said in an interview.

She said she wanted the school to inform others involved that it was allowing a transgender student into the locker room. The district has said it would not do so, because it did not want to violate the privacy rights of the transgender student.

"Part of my concern is, if students are allowed to do this, the other kids and their parents have a right to know," Christensen said. "It's their privacy, too."

She and teacher Robert Oppedisano, who refused to monitor the locker room, contacted the Liberty Counsel to seek protections and advice. Christensen said they felt their jobs were in jeopardy, after they were told locker room supervision is a key part of their work and also that they could not discuss the situation with other students who were affected.

District employee relations director Kathy Scalise said the employees were reminded of their responsibilities. "But have we threatened them with their jobs? Absolutely not."

School Board attorney Dennis Alfonso said he received a letter from the Liberty Counsel in late September outlining the concerns. He responded that he would consult federal law, rule and court precedent to ensure the district was acting appropriately.

"This is an area of law that is somewhat fluid," Alfonso said. "We have tried as a district to treat each individual student's rights on a case-by-case basis, based on the guidance available at the time."

Over the summer, he noted, two Florida school districts received rulings making clear that transgender students should be treated as any others, and should not be subjected to harassment or discrimination.

"They sided with transgender rights," Alfonso said. "We can't ignore the cases."

Compounding the issue, River Ridge Middle and High parent GloriAnna Kirk also turned to the Liberty Counsel regarding a related matter.

She learned that her children's schools offered the Gay-Straight Alliance as a club, and that its leaders could refer children with orientation questions to outside agencies for support. Some parents might not want that, or even know it is happening, Kirk said.

So she asked the School Board to require parental permission for children to participate in all clubs, similar to what Lake County schools did after a dispute over GSA membership.

"I'm not trying to take any resources away from children," Kirk said. "I just think they should have permission slips. … I disagree that someone who doesn't know your child and hasn't raised your child knows better than you."

Mast of the Liberty Counsel said the two issues combined to illustrate the school district's disregard for parental rights, at a time when children arguably need parental input most.

He argued that the Florida cases were wrongly decided, and that federal rules do not require the approach the Pasco schools have taken. Pasco is not alone. Hillsborough County, the Tampa Bay area's largest school district, expressly forbids discrimination and harassment based on sexual orientation or gender identity, among other factors.

But Mast argued in his September letter to the district: "It is not 'discrimination' or 'harassment' for district staff and students to continue using gender pronouns consistent with binary biological sex rather than any given person's subjective beliefs about the nature of gender. Government may not force others to call another person something he or she is not, in matters of conscience, religious belief, and biology."

The district should trust parents, respect teachers' rights and protect the privacy rights of all students, he added in an interview. The solution, Mast suggested, is simple: Offer the transgender student a private space to change and use the restroom, and require parental consent for club participation.

School Board members said they expected to have conversations on the issues in the coming weeks.