Hundreds Attend Lee School Board Briefing on LGBTQ Policies
Controversy continued Monday night over the Lee County School District’s student code of conduct, particularly as it pertains to non-discrimination policy concerning LGBTQ students.
About 350 people turned out for the Lee County School Board’s briefing meeting, April 26, where school board members heard staff recommendations about proposed changes to the student code of conduct and listened to an hour of public comment from current and former students, educators, and community members.
Tensions carried over from the school board’s April 13 meeting, when hundreds showed up to voice opposition to a poster created by Florida’s largest LGBTQ civil rights advocacy organization Equality Florida. The poster, which went up in some schools last fall, was intended to be an educational resource, but was not part of the district’s official non-discrimination policy. Critics of the poster claimed it calls for unisex bathrooms and locker rooms in schools and voiced concerns about transgender athletes competing in school sports.
District officials have characterized those concerns as misinformation, noting that the district makes accommodates for transgender students on a case-by-case basis, and doesn’t have a policy of allowing transgender students to use men’s and women’s restrooms or locker rooms that align with their gender identity.
Instead, the poster covers LGBTQ student rights, such as being able to bring a same-gender date to a school dance, allowing for the formation of student-led organizations and using names and pronouns that align with a student’s gender identity.
The poster also explains that decisions about school sports teams when it comes to segregation be gender are made by the Florida High School Athletic Association, and not the district or individual schools.
During his presentation at Monday’s meeting, the district’s Director of Constituent Services Brian Mangan refuted the notion that Lee schools teach an LGBTQ-focused curriculum. He says references to LGBTQ are included in the sex education curriculum, noting that parents can already opt their kids out.
The current student code of conduct, which is updated annually, was approved by school board members in June 2020 following three hearings that allowed for public comment. At the beginning of the school year, all parents are asked to read the Code of Conduct and sign a form acknowledging that they did. Despite that, outrage over LGBTQ nondiscrimination in the policy did not surface until earlier this month.
Just ten minutes into Monday’s school board briefing, the meeting was interrupted by Ryan Monroe, who stood up and shouted “Keep boys out of the girls’ room.”
Once Lee County Sheriff’s deputies forcibly removed Monroe, the rest of the briefing and public comment period took on a more civil tone following a brief recess.
District staff recommendations for the student code of conduct policy call for removing the poster. District staff also discussed considering the legal climate concerning LGBTQ students noting the 2018 federal court decision in favor of a transgender teen in the St. Johns County School District who was denied access to men’s’ restrooms. District staff also discussed the Parents Bill of Rights legislation, which has now passed both chambers of the Florida Legislature. That legislation has garnered opposition from the LGBTQ community over concerns that it could force teachers to ‘out’ students to parents who may not be understanding or supportive.
In contrast to the April 13 school board meeting, all but 21 of the 60 people who spoke during Monday’s hour of public comment spoke in favor of the district’s policy and allowing the Equality Florida posters to remain in schools.
Several noted the higher risk of suicide and suicidal ideations among LGBTQ youth compared to the general population. Former Lee school’s student Abigail Reed read a letter signed by 131 past and current students calling for more contact between students and the board.
“We call for the creation of an LGBTQ student advisory committee,” said Reed.
“Such a committee would advise the board on LGBTQ issues and the student code of conduct, ensuring they have received testimony from the students within their district. We believe the school board needs to remember their students and how their actions affect us.”
Robert Roper said the district’s policy gives special accommodations to LGBTQ students over others.
“The schools of Lee County should serve as a safe space for all students, not just the segment of the population that’s disproportionately represented by a political organization called equality Florida,” said Roper.
“Please end this unhealthy relationship with Equality Florida and remove all references to LGBTQ policies which are absolutely offensive terms to many people of faith.”
Several current Lee Schools students took the microphone as well including North Fort Myers High School sophomore Alyssa Bernhart who spoke in favor of the poster.
“Never once have I felt harmed or confused by an LGBTQ+ student or teacher expressing their gender identity. In fact, it is basic respect to allow these individuals to be who they are. Using the correct pronouns is not an issue. It is basic respect,” said Bernhart.
“I’ve heard many arguments against this poster. Taking away their representation in schools and treating the subject like it doesn’t exist will only take away from the respect that everyone deserves and causes more confusion.”
Another student, Bella Perez, had a different perspective as she referenced a conversation with her father.
“He asked me what I would feel if there was a boy, a biological boy in the bathroom at the same time as me. I told him I would feel very uncomfortable and terrified,” said Perez.
“I told him, I don’t care if he identifies as a girl, Superman, Batman, heck, even an animal. I would still feel very uncomfortable. So, I’m here to ask you to please repeal this policy and remove the posters.”
Other speakers, including Lee County Commissioner Brian Hammon raised similar concerns about transgender students sharing locker rooms or bathrooms with other kids.
Once again, allowing students to use men’s and women’s restrooms and locker rooms with others in accordance with their gender identity is not part of the school district’s policy, nor was it ever up for consideration.
At the end of the briefing meeting, school board member Melisa Giovanelli reiterated the idea of creating an LGBT advisory committee. She also said the controversial Equality Florida poster has not been helpful, and that she plans to file a motion to have it removed.
A briefing and first reading of a proposed updated student code of conduct policy is set for May 25, with a second public hearing and reading set for June 8.