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LGBTQ+ legal issues and best practices discussed at school board workshop

By MEGHAN BRADBURY - | Mar 31, 2021

news@breezenewspapers.com

The Lee County School Board heard a lengthy presentation this week regarding legal issues and best practices as they pertain to students who are LGBTQ+.

Chief Staff Attorney Brian Williams said there are federal, state and now local laws within the school district to prevent discrimination.

The school policies that were revised now have a wider protection and transparency of individuals belonging to specific class. Policy 1.27 revision includes that discrimination will not be tolerated for “sex, sexual orientation, gender identification, gender expression.” This policy was approved in June 2020 and is posted online and in classrooms.

In addition, the bullying and harassment policy, 4.14, protects students and employees against bullying and harassment based on “sex, sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression.”

Student privacy laws were also addressed at the workshop held on Monday, including the privacy interest of students as individuals and privacy with parents involved. Williams said a parent is entitled to anything that is included in their child’s education records.

“Our district is taking an approach that this is an opportunity to engage all parties involved. Our goal is to do what is in the best interest of students and following the law,” he said, adding that the district wants to engage both the student, as well as the parent, in trying to share the information to the extent to which they legally can.

The exception to privacy rights is when safety and welfare is at stake, as well as whether the student may be a harm to themselves, Williams said.

Board member Mary Fischer said as a school counselor, if a child came to her office, she told the student anything they said was confidential, unless they were hurting themselves or someone else, or was in danger. In those instances, school personnel must talk to their parents.

Academic Services Staff Attorney Kristine Shrode said they are not actively trying to hide information from parents, but rather ensuring the student is safe and involving other parties when necessary.

Williams said there may be a reason a student is not sharing information with their parents. In some cases, the result of sharing information with parents can have an ultimate negative impact on the student.

“The school is put in the middle of two different interests and they have to navigate these waters. They are made with careful thought,” Williams said.

Shrode spoke about students who are transgender, and bathrooms and locker rooms.

“I can say with certainty that the vast majority of cases supports allowing the transgender (student) using bathrooms and locker rooms in which they identify; to use restrooms of their choice,” she said. “That is why we are following that trend at this point.”

Every student in the district can seek out accommodation for a gender-neutral restroom, according to Positive Prevention Director Charles Bradley.

Curriculum was another topic of discussion.

Bradley said there is no LGBTQ+ specific curriculum. The district teaches to Florida Next Generation Sunshine State Standards.

“We do address issues that arise on an individual case-by-case basis. We are addressing those concerns and helping those students in supporting them to remain engaged in their academics,” Bradley said.

Board member Melisa Giovannelli asked for data that would tell her how many transgender students there are in Lee County dealing with this issue.

Bradley said although they do not have tools to collect the number of students identifying with LGBTQ+, 18.2 percent of students in the state of Florida do not identify themselves strictly as heterosexual and 1.5 percent in the state identify themselves as transgender.

One of the ways the district helps students is through student-led organizations, such as Equality Club, Unity Club, GSA, or Identity Club.

Diversity and Inclusion Coach Crystal Torres-Nunez said the students seeks out a sponsor with a faculty member before a conversation is had with administration. There are currently seven established GSA clubs in high school, some of which have been established for more than five years, and four in middle schools.

In addition, the district has created a branded “Safe Space” sticker, as well posters that share information about Title IX and best practices and action steps. A confidential Gender Support Plan is also being used “to create shared understanding of how the student’s authentic gender will be accounted for and supported at schools.”

Bradley said the plan allows the student to share how they want to be addressed in terms of gender-affirming names and pronouns.