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LGBTQ school rules dispute takes different tone at Pasco board meeting

The discourse is more civil and respectful, two weeks after a session that many deemed hate-filled and vile.
An LGBTQ Pride march participant walks under a large rainbow flag in New York earlier this year. School Board policy regarding LGBTQ students has been a frequent topic of discussion in recent months in Pasco County.
An LGBTQ Pride march participant walks under a large rainbow flag in New York earlier this year. School Board policy regarding LGBTQ students has been a frequent topic of discussion in recent months in Pasco County. [ CRAIG RUTTLE | AP ]
Published Dec. 4, 2019
Updated Dec. 4, 2019

By now, no one bats an eye when the topic of transgender student rights comes up at Pasco County School Board meetings.

A group of conservative activists has attempted for more than a year to sway the board to revoke its procedures that permit transgender children to use the restroom and locker room that they identify with. They’ve come so often pressuring for changes to that and other related district rules, that their three-meeting absence earlier this fall was more notable than their now routine appearances.

What changed at Tuesday’s meeting was the direction and tone of the discussion — particularly after a raucous Nov. 19 session that turned so vitriolic that eSchool principal JoAnne Glenn, who like most administrators generally steers clear of the hot button issues, felt compelled to speak out.

“I am not willing to sit by quietly any longer,” Glenn, the district’s 2020 Principal of the Year, told the board on Tuesday.

She called out the critics for cheering what she deemed “naked hate,” and said their display did not represent what Pasco County stands for. And she praised the board for standing up for the protection and inclusion of all students, for not caving to the unending onslaught of calls for a different direction.

Glenn was far from alone. In a stark turnaround from many past meetings, supporters of LGBTQ students turned out in force to dominate the board’s regular public comment session in thanking the district for its position.

Decked out in purple, the dozens of supporters shared their views and their stories about why it’s necessary to provide a safe and welcoming environment for the children who are considered most at risk for bullying, self-harm and suicide attempts.

“You shouldn’t have to stay up worrying if your friends will be dead the next day because their parents aren’t accepting of them,” Aliana Taylor, president of Sunlake High School’s LGBTQ club, told the board as she choked back tears.

Rowan Stevens, a recent Wesley Chapel High School graduate, said the district’s best practices — which have come under fire from the group calling itself Protect Pasco Children — in fact are the things that protect the children. He said he transitioned while a high school senior, and without the support of the school’s principal, students and staff, “I would not be where I am today.”

Related: <b>RELATED: </b> Protesters won’t give up fight against Pasco schools’ LGBTQ rules

One by one, the speakers organized by Pasco Pride took that tack.

Pasco Pride president Nina Borders. [MICHELE MILLER |  Times]
Pasco Pride president Nina Borders. [MICHELE MILLER | Times]

“I thank you so much for standing your ground,” Nina Borders, the group’s president, told the board.

About three quarters of the way through the period, some of the regular critics, whom many had heard were not coming, stepped forward to speak.

They quoted liberally from the Bible and encouraged the board and audience to hear the truth of God to be set free. They spoke of “confused” children and said allowing them to use the restroom of “another sex” made no sense to them.

“Where did decency go?” speaker John Tyson Sr. said. “Why can you push your views on other people and we can’t speak the truth?”

But unlike that Nov. 19 meeting, where things overheated and people got nasty, this time civility held. Some of the critics went so far as to apologize for the behavior of the past meeting, and took pains to stress that while they disagree fundamentally on the issue, they do not want to have hate dominate.

“It’s all about love, for God to love the world,” pastor Troy Pederson said.

No one booed or hissed. After the meeting ended, speakers from both sides gathered in the hallway to talk together, rather than in separate groups to talk about each other.

With several national conservative groups watching, few anticipated the issue would die down anytime soon. Superintendent Kurt Browning advised that, unless the federal courts change the equation, he didn’t plan on changing the district’s procedures. And elections are fast approaching.

Perhaps at best, they expected to agree to disagree, but amicably.