Leon County School Board approves LGBTQ guide after fierce debate
After three hours of fiery public debate, the Leon County School Board unanimously approved its "LGBTQ Inclusive School Guide" Tuesday night.
The policy, which the board is calling a “guide” and a "living document" that can be quickly updated, comes after weeks of deliberation from the district’s LGBTQ+ Advisory Committee.
The document is intended to create guidelines for teachers and administrators to help students who need it and to outline state laws for employees, Assistant Superintendent Alan Cox told the Tallahassee Democrat.
The advisory committee was created to review the district's longstanding LGBTQ guide, which was pulled last summer after the parents of a middle school child complained that it overstepped their parental rights.
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Most of the 60 or so public speakers leveled harsh criticism of the guide and effort, with some saying it could harm LGBTQ students and others saying it didn't go far enough to protect parental rights.
"Normally when we have something on the agenda, we have a group that's for, and a group that's against," board Vice Chair Alva Striplin said. "Well, tonight we had everyone against."
Parental notification draws fire
What drew the most debate was a provision that a school will notify parents — by form — if a student who is "open about their gender identity" is in a physical education class or on an overnight trip.
Some teachers and students during the Tuesday night meeting said the policy will “out” LGBTQ+ students — revealing their sexual orientation or gender identity without their permission.
The policy language does explicitly say a student’s sexual orientation, gender identity or expression “should not be shared with others without their input and permission.”
Back story:Leon County Schools LGBTQ guide draft completed, public comment scheduled for June 28
The document:Read the full LGBTQ guide and amendments here.
"The notification to all the parents can create a very stressful and unwanted situation to trans and LGBTQ students," said Kailey Sandell, a Leon High School student who spoke at the meeting. "A lot of times kids assume that kids are gay or trans; they will easily be able to hurt them."
In the backdrop of the debate over LGBTQ rights is the Parental Rights in Education bill, HB 1557, passed earlier this year, which states that parents must be notified if there is a change in their child's "mental, emotional, or physical health or well-being."
The meeting lasted more than four hours and multiple speakers cited the Bible in their comments. Some parents said discussions about sexual orientation have no place in schools and that the guide was overstepping the role of education officials.
Other parents who spoke at the meeting argued if they are not notified in such circumstances, it's a violation of their parental rights.
"Any attempt to withhold information from a parent or try to influence a child in a knowing way is against Florida law," said Sharyn Kerwin, head of the Leon County chapter of Moms for Liberty and a member of the committee the advisory committee.
The Moms for Liberty group, based in Brevard County, rose to power during the mask mandate debates. The conservative organization aims to make a big mark on the 2022 elections and position itself as a juggernaut on education issues with the clout to reshape school policies in Tallahassee and throughout the nation.
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Critics of the notification policy say the district’s language is equating “gender identity” with LGBTQ sexuality. They note that even someone who is “straight” expresses themselves via their clothing choices or appearance and can be "open about their gender identity.”
“Sending out a parent notification could be seen as placing a target on a student’s back,” said Lauren Kelly-Manders, a Tallahassee resident.
Kelly-Manders, 34, is a staunch LGBTQ advocate and “came out” when she was 14 at Leon High School. She also sits on the city’s LGBTQ+ Advisory Council.
“I have concerns and trouble envisioning that type of notice in practice,” she said.
Benjamin Burn, another LCS student who spoke at the meeting, said, rather, making restrooms in schools gender-neutral would help, especially with bullying situations.
“Trans kids want privacy,” Benjamin said. “That’s what I want, that’s what everyone wants. And trans kids honestly deserve it.”
Board members at odds but find common ground
Board Chair Darryl Jones said initially that he was against the guide and favored delaying a vote.
"One of the things I don't want this guide to do is, for lack of a better description, weaponize bigotry," Jones said.
Vice Chair Alva Striplin took the opposing view.
“I feel like parents are not protected enough in this,” she said. “But I'm trying to meet in the middle and give our teachers something."
'N:'No place for these kids': How Leon County Schools' LGBTQ+ guide worked for one teen
Ultimately, the board and superintendent concluded that teachers desperately needed a guide soon and agreed to move forward.
Board member Joy Bowen, the longest-serving member of the board, attended the meeting via Zoom as she tested positive for COVID-19. Board member Rosanne Wood, previously a principal of SAIL High School, said the policy would help create direction for teachers and schools.
“I think there’s a lot of misconceptions about this and we are trying to help our teachers and our administrators know what to do with students who need our help,” Wood said.
The board voted to approve the guide unanimously 4-0. It will revisit the guide in six months to adjust it if needed.
Casey Chapter is a reporter for the Florida Student News Watch and a Tallahassee Democrat contributor. Follow her on Twitter @CaseyChapter.
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