Debate about transgender access to restrooms and parental notifications drew an angry and raucous crowd to a Lee County School District workshop.
There, school district staff said a set of Equality Florida-recommended best practices likely will not appear in a student code of conduct. But legal counsel pointed to case law that determined denying transgender students access to facilities consistent with gender identity qualified as discrimination.
School Board Attorney Kathy Dupoy-Bruno said the schools fall within the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, and thus is governed by the Adams v. St. Johns County School Board ruling last year. That case found a North Florida school district discriminated against Drew Adams, a transgender teen, by denying him access to the boy’s restroom.
Lee County’s code of conduct, in place since the start of this school year, sparked controversy in the past two weeks. Over the past few days, six Lee County lawmakers demanded in a letter that the school district end any policy allowing transgender students to use bathroom and locker room facilities aligned with their gender identity.
“We urge you to immediately discontinue or cancel any policies that allow male students and faculty members to use the girls’ bathrooms and locker rooms in Lee County Schools,” wrote Rep. Spencer Roach, Lee County Legislative Delegation chair.
U.S. Rep. Byron Donalds also sent a letter last week calling on the district to back off its interpretation of federal law on transgender students. He also said the district should not let Equality Florida, which he labeled a partisan organization, dictate district policy.
School Board Member Chris Patricca said she was surprised the district would include in its code of conduct guidance from any advocacy organization. She also criticized posters released and placed in schools that included the Equality guidelines.
But as hundreds packed a School Board workshop, all members of the board expressed alarm at the disruptive crowd. Within 10 minutes of the start of the meeting, at least one individual was escorted out by security and the board was forced to take a recess.
At the meeting, School Board Member Gwynetta Gittens said she consulted with transgender students and conservative ones. She presented their recommendations to school staff, and said the mention of gender identity in the code of conduct stoked controversy without helping the students themselves.
“They don’t want to be singled out,” Gittens said.
Gittens and school district personnel stressed that students cannot simply choose a restroom to use on a given day. Rather, they must speak with guidance and administration about being recognized by a different gender identity. Facilities access gets determined on a case-by-case basis.
Sports participation, district personnel said, is determined based on the Florida High School Athletic Association’s guidelines. There, too, students must verify to the organization that they live their entire lives with a different gender identity than assigned at birth.
There was no vote on what a new student code of conduct will include, a decision that won’t be made until May. Board members offered a different suggestion. For Patricca’s part, she seemed more concerned about locker room access than restrooms.
But she also said the district should be able to form a policy despite the Adams ruling if it’s discussed in advance, not in reaction to a situation as happened in St. Johns County.
She also questioned if the board should even treat the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Bostock v. Clay County, a ruling last June that determined gender identity as a protected class from discrimination. The dissent in Bostock now comprises a majority on the Supreme Court,” she said.
That’s not exactly true. Bostock was a 6-3 decision. Justice Ruth Bade Ginsberg died and was replaced by a more conservative jurist, Amy Coney Barrett, but her opinion may not be a given on the issue. Also of note, the opinion in Bostock was written by conservative jurist Neil Gorsuch, an appointee of former President Donald Trump.
In coming weeks, the district will also study a Parental Bill of Rights recently passed by the Florida Legislature, which officials seemed to believe could change notification requirements on students gender identities.