When they first arrived on the scene a year ago, the conservative activists appeared intent on convincing the Pasco County School Board into changing the way it dealt with transgender youth.
The group, largely connected with a collection of New Port Richey churches, had latched on to the story of a Chasco Middle School gym teacher who said his job was threatened after he refused to supervise the boys locker room when a transgender sixth-grade student was changing. They came to board meetings in increasingly large numbers, at one point nearing 200 people. They demanded children use restrooms and locker rooms according to their birth certificate gender, and pressed for parental permission slips to join all school clubs — especially the Gay-Straight Alliance.
They brought in lawyers from right-leaning organizations. And they shared their endeavors with conservative media, watching the issue gain national attention.
A year later, with the School Board having stood firm in asserting that students may use the facilities of their gender identity, the crowds have thinned. The goals of the loyal crew of protesters — many of whom regularly invoke the Bible and say they will pray for the board — have not changed.
Some of their tactics have.
A dozen or so members still come to board meetings, wearing their “Pasco Kids At Risk” T-shirts and chastising the board.
But since the start of the school year, the group also has demonstrated outside six schools and says it plans to hit every campus in the county. It has held monthly community forums organizers say have been well attended, aiming to expand its message beyond its west Pasco base. It’s collecting petition signatures to pressure the board into a policy change. And it has established a growing social media and internet presence to inform more parents and residents of the facts as they see them.
“Parents shouldn’t be kept in the dark,” organizer GloriAnna Kirk said. “Every parent needs the information. Then they can make a decision.”
They weren’t swayed by superintendent Kurt Browning’s recent move to reduce the district’s 71-page “Best Practices” guide on transgender issues to a single-page reference sheet. They loathed the original because it allowed children to decide whether educators could tell parents about their lifestyle choices. The smaller guide says the same thing with fewer words, activist Pat Rogers said.
“You are stepping all over parental rights,” Rogers told the board recently.
And they have not been assuaged by Browning’s explanations of what the district has done for transgender students and why. They point to emails they say prove otherwise, and urge the superintendent to “stop lying.”
Terry Kemple, a longtime Brandon conservative activist advising the Pasco contingent, says the effort is gaining a foothold.
After a recent flyer drive outside a school, he said, views of the group’s Facebook page and website jumped by a few hundred new visitors. The page has 304 followers, with another 295 “likes.” People receiving the information have thanked the activists, Kemple said, and encouraged them to spread the word more broadly.
“We will go to every school,” he said. “Once we’ve gone to every school, there’s not going to be 1,000, there’s going to be tens of thousands of parents who will know what these people have done.”
Kirk acknowledged that many supporters of her conservative group’s perspective have not been vocal. She had a theory.
“You can see they are watching,” she said, referring to the growing numbers on the social media pages. "But they are afraid."
No one likes to be called a homophobe or a bigot or a hater, as the more outspoken activists have been called, she said, adding, "they are starting to speak up.”
But so, too, are those opposed to the hard-line position the conservative activists have repeated at public meeting after public meeting.
Some parents have complained to the school district that group members have leaned into cars trying to force their “propaganda” on them, and that some have said negative things about LGBTQ youth to their children.
Kirk denied this, and said they only distribute materials to people who ask for it, never engaging youngsters.
LGBTQ students and advocates from Pasco and across the state have written to the board. They have spoken at meetings, asking the board to maintain its support of their community.
Esme Rodriguez, safe and healthy schools coordinator at Equality Florida, a statewide LGBTQ rights organization, was among those who urged the district to reinstate its “Best Practices” guideline. It gave teachers relevant advice on how to support LGBTQ students, she said, who are among the most at-risk teens. The one-page reference sheet didn’t include enough detail, Rodriguez said.
“Public education is based on equity,” Rodriguez said. “Provide educators with information to help all students.”
She and others also called out the conservatives for their reliance on fringe “expert” groups, such as the American College of Pediatricians, rather than more mainstream experts such as the American Academy of Pediatrics.
The former is a small, socially conservative central Florida-based organization that writes of gender "dysphoria” and confusion. The latter is the national professional association of pediatricians, which seeks to eliminate the discrimination and stigma against transgender youth.
Last week, after sitting mostly quiet amid the criticisms for a year, superintendent Kurt Browning and some School Board members started firing back.
Board member Megan Harding chided activists at the Sept. 17 board meeting for their repeated call for parent permission slips for student clubs.
All schools list their clubs online, Harding noted, and parents can send a note saying they do not want their child to take part in any one of them. Browning blistered critics for their constant refrain that the board and administration are stepping in the way of parental rights.
“I want parents involved,” he said. “We are not the parents. Parents are parents.”
However, the district has the responsibility to provide a safe learning environment for all children, Browning said, and to follow the laws and court cases governing student rights. The cases, including one from St. Johns County, ruled in favor of transgender students who requested to use restrooms and locker rooms according to their gender identity.
People asking the district to discriminate against LGBTQ youth in favor of the majority seem to miss that point, Browning said, and they don’t tell the truth about the very situation at Chasco Middle that prompted their activism in the first place.
No teacher was threatened with losing his job, Browning stressed. No boys ran out of the Chasco locker room screaming that a girl was in there. No one is trying to take parental rights away.
The group is welcome to make its position known, he said, adding, “the only thing I ask is that you talk facts and you know what the facts are.”
His commentary quickly won praise on social media from educators and other observers. But it didn’t win friends among the group that disapproves of the district’s decisions regarding transgender students, parent permission slips and other related matters.
So long as the district holds firm on its approach to transgender issues, Kirk said, community members who want a change will continue to agitate. She was hopeful that representatives from the various perspectives might sit together and see if some compromise might arise.
“We’d love to have a conversation and get that going,” she said. “I know we can come up with a solution and respect everyone’s rights.”
Browning and other district officials were skeptical, because of the group’s unyielding demands.
If nothing changes, Kemple said, the battle will grow. People are watching to see where the board members land, he said, and as concern grows, “we are coming after them.”
“We may not have a slate (of board candidates) in 2020,” he said. “But if this is not resolved by 2022, there will be a slate.”
Barring a new court directive or a change in law, Browning and the board have stated they do not intend to change the district’s procedures. LGBTQ youth are at high risk for suicide and self harm, in part because they are among the most bullied students in schools, officials noted in a recent report on local youth risk behavior.
They need protection as much, if not more, than any others, the superintendent told the audience at a recent board meeting.
“I am a Christian man. I go to Idlewild Baptist Church every Sunday,” Browning said. “But I am also superintendent of Pasco County schools, and I have a huge responsibility to protect the safety of every child … whether I agree with their lifestyle or not.”