After a months-long campaign by transgender advocates pushing for greater protections for transgender students in Flagler Schools, the School Board decided in a split vote during its April 21 meeting not to add “gender identity” to the list of protections enumerated in its nondiscrimination policy.
Board member Colleen Conklin was the only one of the five board members to make a case during the meeting in favor of adding “gender identity” to the policy.
It was a change of direction for her: In previous meetings, Conklin had voiced support for transgender students, but also said she believed the existing district policies already cover everyone, and that issues specific to transgender students could be dealt with by changes in procedures and training rather than policy.
She said at the April 22 meeting that she had since done additional research and concluded that the current policies do not necessarily protect transgender students.
The existing policy states that no one shall be subjected to discrimination in education or employment “on the basis of race, color, religion, gender, age, marital status, sexual orientation, pregnancy, disability, political or religious beliefs, national or ethic origin, or genetic information.”
“This really isn’t about politics or religion,” Conklin said. “As a matter of fact, I think politically I’ve been told that this will be my last term on the board if I support a change in this policy, but this is really about protecting students.”
She said her understanding of the term “gender” had previously been simplistic, and she’d since learned that it is different from gender identity — someone’s innate sense of being male or female.
She noted that although gender dysphoria — the distress that arises in some people over a sense of mismatch between their sexed anatomy and their gender identity — is listed as a disorder in the fifth edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, being transgender or gender nonconforming itself is not a disorder.
Students dealing with dysphoria, she said, may or may not determine they’re transgender and decide to transition, but “that’s really not up to you or I; it’s not up to anybody to decide if that’s wrong or right.”
She asked her fellow board members to consider changing the policy.
“It would be sending a strong message that we will not tolerate our students being bullied or harassed based on their gender,” she said.
The issue of transgender student protections was brought before the board in November, when local father Randy Bertrand told the board that his son, a transgender boy who is transitioning from female to male, had encountered resistance from a teacher at Matanzas High School who did not want to use the boy’s new male name.
The district looked into those allegations. Although it determined that the teacher had resisted using the student’s new name, saying he’d done so because the name was the same as the teacher’s father’s name but he was willing to use a nickname, it did not censure the teacher.
Bertrand’s son transferred from Matanzas to Flagler Palm Coast High School, seeking a more accepting environment, Bertrand said.
In the meeting following the one in which Bertrand first addressed the board, a pastor, Charlene Cothran, took the podium during the meeting’s public comment period, said she was an ex-lesbian and former “activist in the homosexual lifestyle,”and berated Bertrand’s son, calling him a “confused girl” and saying he was mentally ill.
Bertrand and his family and supporters faced off with Cothran over a series of succeeding meetings as Bertrand and trans advocates pushed for the policy change.
For the April 21 meeting, seven community members, including Randy Bertrand and his wife, Jennifer Bertrand, submitted emailed comments about the proposed policy change. All were in favor of adding "gender identity" to the policy. Board attorney Kristy Gavin read the comments into the record at the board meeting.
"In this debate and vote, do not lose focus that my son was the victim of bullying by a teacher and my family was subjected to verbal tirades while you looked on from your seats," Randy Bertrand wrote. "Do not forget your duty to protect kids, even those whose choices you may disagree with. The judgement of them is not yours to render, but your duty is to protect them. Protect them you must. The most vulnerable ones. The ones who are often the subject of joke punchlines and public ridicule. Affirm to this community that you are 100% for all kids and not just the ones who look, talk, act, believe and identify in ways you agree with."
Community member Nicole Graves wrote, "The board needs to ensure the protection of all it services. If it cannot bring itself to include 'and gender identity,' then it should revise the whole statement, 'No person shall be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity, or in any employment conditions or practices conducted by this School District, except as provided by law,' and exclude all the specifics that it already has deemed necessary to list."
At the April 21 meeting, the School Board was presented with two possible versions of a policy amendment: One added the word “gender identity,” the other didn’t.
Conklin motioned to approve the policy with the new wording. Her motion died for lack of a second.
After she made her comments, board member Andy Dance said that he favored keeping the current language in the policy, without adding gender identity.
“We show compassion in how we act; we show and support our students with our actions, and one place we’ve been deficient is in what Ms. Conklin said — in our procedures and actually putting things in writing,” he said. “I think the next step is having best practices put together.”
Board member Maria Barbosa said that parents who want teachers to call their child by a new name should have a legal name change performed.
“Do not push it to the teachers to call your child their adopted name without you changing it through the state,” she said. “Teachers, they are very busy already; they try to do the best they can. ... When it comes to protecting all the students, I think the policy does protect all the students.”
But protocols, she said, could be changed “to embrace the changes the world is giving to us.”
Board Chairwoman Janet McDonald said that the initial incident between Bertrand’s son and the teacher “was not a disparaging event,” and she was concerned over public criticism of the teacher “without any findings.”
“There has been, and we’ve heard that there have been, very happy accommodations made at FPC even though the ones at Matanzas were rejected,” she said.
Flagler County’s teachers, she said, don’t try to disparage or marginalize students.
She added that she believed that the DSM-V had been changed for political reasons. "It is not always on medical findings that that document gets changed," she said.
“At the bottom of this, we are here for every student,” she said.
Conklin said that students are dealing with difficult situations regarding transgender issues, and, she said, “If you think that we don’t have a few (staff members) that need additional training to develop some tolerance and understanding on how to work with all students, I think we’re tone deaf to that.”
McDonald responded, “I think training is a different area than policy; we’re talking about a policy.”
Barbosa made a motion to accept the policy without the addition of gender identity.
It passed 4-1, with Conklin dissenting.
“It does not mean we do not care,” Barbosa said. “We do care.”