Pasco transgender student rights debate prompts talk on parental permission for clubs

New school board member supports measure.
Published Jan. 29, 2019

Among their many demands, critics of the Pasco County school district's practices relating to transgender students want the School Board to require parental consent for students to participate in clubs and other extracurricular activities.

That doesn't seem like too great an ask to board member Megan Harding.

"I don't see why this is difficult," Harding said. Parents "should know what their children are doing during the school day."

A former teacher, Harding noted the biggest potential problem could arise from parents who don't respond at all. She recalled having students whose families would not return cards asking for contact information in the event of an emergency.

It might not be reasonable to expect those parents to send in permission forms for clubs, Harding acknowledged, adding that situation could prevent children from participating in anything at all. One answer might be to send home notifications alerting parents what their children are doing, and allowing them to return responses if they want to prevent their involvement, she suggested.

"We have to figure out a solution," Harding said, mentioning the need for a workshop. The issue is "not going to go away. The public deserves to at least know we're talking about it. I don't want anybody from any side to feel like we're brushing it off."

The request first came up in October, before it was clear that activists were targeting the district over transgender issues. It has since become part of the larger set of demands from an ever-growing group of people attending board meetings.

Their concerns continue to mushroom, with the support of conservative media outlets that echo their version of the events at Chasco Middle School this past fall. A Chasco student who identifies as male asked to use the boys locker room during physical education classes, and the school coaches balked at supervising the situation — especially without being allowed to inform parents of the other students, something the district would not allow, saying it violated the transgender student's privacy.

As emails from both sides continue to pour in to district offices, Harding and others have not signaled any move to alter the underlying harassment policy.

"I want everyone to feel safe," Harding said, declining to expand.

But on this one point, she suggested, some movement might be possible. The board meets again on Feb. 5.

CAMPUS SAFETY: Pasco schools superintendent Kurt Browning stared at the television in disbelief recently as he listened to Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri brief lawmakers on school security.

"I watched the testimony before the House committee," said Browning, president-elect of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents. "I was thinking to myself, districts are not like that."

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He referred to Gualtieri's criticism that some school systems are dragging their feet in implementing safety measures mandated in the aftermath of the February 2018 deadly shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Gualtieri called for sanctions against officials who don't meet the letter of the law.

Browning acknowledged that the state might have a handful of laggard districts, but suggested that is far from the norm.

Most districts have worked diligently to meet the requirements within their financial and logistical constraints, Browning said. Even law enforcement agencies struggle to hire enough officers and conduct their own primary obligations, Browning observed, and districts were given a quick turnaround with limited funds to do such things as hire more armed guards and improve building security.

Pasco schools, for instance, have hired and trained uniformed, armed guards for every elementary school, while placing law enforcement officers at every middle and high school campus. Teachers and staff have received added training, he said, including on some details that in the past had gone unaddressed.

Whether everyone acts properly and in accordance with the plan is perhaps one of the biggest worries.

Browning said he and other districts' leaders met with Gualtieri in the past to discuss such issues. They have another session scheduled for Feb. 8 in Tampa.

PAY HIKES: Pasco County school support staff could see raises of 2 percent (or more, in some cases) land in their paychecks by the end of February.

They could have back pay for the first seven months of the budget year in hand by the end of March.

With a tentative deal, the district's human resources, finance and information services departments have begun working to translate the proposed new salary rates into the payroll system in anticipation of approval by the School Board and the bargaining unit. The goal, district officials said, is to have the new salaries in place for the Feb. 22 checks.

The approval votes have not been scheduled, but United School Employees of Pasco and district administration officials are working on a ratification schedule.

If adopted, the contracts would give all school-related employees — such as bus drivers and food service workers — a 2 percent raise. The deal also would increase wages above the 2 percent for workers in the lowest-paid positions, such as some child care assistants and school registrars.

Teachers remain the only group of district employees without an salary agreement for 2018-19. The sides reached a settlement on a total amount for raises, but did not come to a conclusion on how to distribute the money.

The union has requested a special magistrate from the state to help settle that and a handful of other contract language disputes.

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at Follow @jeffsolochek.