SARASOTA — Sarasota County Superintendent Todd Bowden didn’t back down Tuesday, standing by the school district’s gender identity guidelines.
The guidelines currently allow transgender students to go by their preferred name and pronoun, and use bathrooms and locker rooms that align with their preferred gender, among other topics. They also encourage students to involve their parents in gender decisions, but stop short of requiring staff members to notify parents if a student brings up their gender preference at school.
As superintendent, Bowden is comfortable with those guidelines.
Two School Board members disagree, and want the guidelines rewritten to require parental consent before gender decisions are made.
Early during Tuesday night’s meeting, chair Bridget Ziegler made a motion to retract the guidelines and rewrite them to include parental consent. Board member Eric Robinson seconded the motion. The motion was voted down 3-2, with Vice Chair Jane Goodwin and board members Caroline Zucker and Shirley Brown dissenting, and Ziegler and Robinson voting in favor.
Ziegler told the Sun on Oct. 31 that she knew the School Board’s meeting with gender issues on the agenda aligned with Election Night, and she wanted to get the item out as soon as possible. The meeting drew a standing-room-only crowd, and many people from the audience spoke.
For his part, Bowden was steadfast in his refusal to make changes to the guidelines Tuesday. During his superintendent’s report, Bowden explained that he wanted to create a safe space for students who are gay or may be transgender in the district.
“To our students, I see you,” Bowden said.
Bowden criticized Ziegler for questioning the guidelines and her repeated attempts to go against his choice to publish the guidelines. According to Bowden, the guidelines already existed, but they were put to paper recently.
The guidelines were created by a committee of 16 that included students, community activists, teachers and administration. The work on the guidelines has been ongoing since 2016 — the gender identity conversation began that same year with students at Pine View School.
Bowden told the Sun on Oct. 31 that he was not circumventing the School Board, but using his authority as superintendent to release the guidelines to students and staff. He also stressed that they were guidelines and not a policy, which would need approval from the board.
The school district does continue to have a zero-tolerance policy for bullying and discrimination based on race, gender, ethnic background or religion.
The Election Day meeting drew crowds from both sides of the gender-identity conversation. Most of the opposition, like Ziegler, wanted more parental involvement and to not allow students to decide their gender at school without parental consent. More than 30 parents and community members spoke from both sides of the discussion.
One speaker was Drew Peters, who was recently investigated by the Sarasota County Schools Police Department after sending an email to Bowden. Peters signed the email with “see you around,” which Bowden passed onto the safety and security department.
The email caused officers to show up at Peters’ home to investigate his comment. On Tuesday, Peters spoke during public comment saying Bowden was disconnected and Peters would not be intimidated by the use of the police force. Peters expressed further concern saying that he worried the bathroom policy would be abused by students, something he saw while he was a student at Pine View School.
Several other parents and community members spoke about the fact that students should have parental involvement if they choose to change their gender. “I am shocked at the guidelines without parental consent,” Esther Rockwell told the board.
Others supported and applauded the superintendent for his choice.
Vanessa Nichols, who lives in Venice, has a transgender son who attends Venice Elementary. Nichols has been to meetings speaking about her own experiences with the district. During Tuesday’s meeting, Nichols let parents who are afraid of the changes know that transgender students live in fear every day.
“To the parents reacting out of fear, 90 percent of our LGBT kids live in fear,” she said.
Nichols celebrated Bowden and his choice, but also the fact that — thanks to the district listening — it has kept her son safe. She called the guidelines important and told other parents to educate themselves.
Molly Swift was part of the task force and the former assistant director of ALSO Youth, an organization for young adults between 13 and 21 in Sarasota County. Swift said she was surprised with what the board accomplished and that “outing” transgender kids contradicts the safety and healthy guidelines the district has in place.
“I agree with Todd (Bowen) of involving parents (and) ensuring kids are safe and healthy at schools. Please don’t make changes,” Swift told the board.
While no changes were made Tuesday, the board could bring up the guidelines at any time, according to School Communications Manager Tracey Beeker.
The guidelines as published will remain in place as of the Tuesday meeting.
The Sarasota County School Board will meet at 8:30 a.m. Nov. 20 for its monthly workshop, followed by its 3 p.m. board meeting in the board chambers, 1980 Landings Blvd., Sarasota. Meetings and workshops are broadcast live on The Education Channel, Comcast channel 20 and Frontier channel 33. Meetings are also streamed live at www.sarasotacountyschools.net.