Lee County School Superintendent Greg Adkins talks about masks at meeting
Lee County School Superintendent Greg Adkins talks about masks at meeting on Tuesday, April 13, 2021.
Amanda Inscore, Fort Myers News-Press
Tensions flared during a Lee County school board meeting Tuesday as hundreds of people turned up to discuss a flyer in the Code of Conduct that outlines the civil rights of LGBTQ students.
The flyer, approved last June as part of the 2020-21 student handbooks, resulted in an hourlong public comment session and two calls to halt the meeting in efforts to calm the crowd.
The topic was not up for a vote, but board members will be discussing the upcoming school year’s Code of Conduct in a board briefing set for 6 p.m. April 26.
Critics say the LGBTQ flyer calls for unisex bathrooms and locker rooms in schoolhouses. Many said the document was added without public input, usurping parental rights and putting children at risk of sexual assaults and psychological trauma.
The district says none of that is true.
“The blanket idea that the district allows boys and girls to shower together, share the same locker room or restroom is simply wrong,” said Debbie Jordan, the chair of the school board, reading from a prepared statement before and after the public comment.
District officials said “misinformation” about the document has spread recently through social media posts and some radio outlets.
LGBTQ flyer meant to ‘educate stakeholders’
The flyer covers the rights of LGBTQ students, such as being able to bring same-gender dates to school events, form student-led organizations and be referred to by the name and pronouns that align with their gender identity.
The document was created to “educate stakeholders on the current national case law trend regarding LGBTQ students in the school setting,” the district said.
It also includes the school system’s non-discrimination policy and lists contact information for a 24-hour crisis line, an anti-bullying hotline and the district’s in-house equity department.
Many of the people who offered public comment on the flyer Tuesday spoke of two items on the flyer.
One item referred to students participating in school activities and sports that align with their gender identity.
The other dealt with students using restrooms that match their gender identity or having access to “appropriate accommodations as requested.”
As explained on the poster, decisions about participation in sport teams segregated by gender is made by the Florida High School Athletic Association, not the district nor the schools.
When it comes to bathrooms, the poster explains the options are discussed on “a case-by-case basis” so accommodations can be made.
“Sensitive issues regarding LGBTQ matters are addressed and approved on an individual case-by-case basis,” Jordan read as part of her statement. “The district works with the students and guardians and provides gender-neutral, private restrooms to any student.”
Such cases are extremely rare.
Superintendent Greg Adkins checked with district staff to see whether they are aware of any such situations in the schools.
“…The answer is ‘no,’” Adkins reported to the board Monday when the topic came up in end-of-meeting comments during a workshop meeting. “So, you know, there may be one out there that they’re not aware of but, I mean, anything that would be an issue would be escalated to their level, and they would be aware of it and let me know.”
Adkins said that the schools “have always tried to address some of these individual concerns that students have with the students, with the parents. Where appropriate, the schools have done a great job, I think, working through these issues.”
LGBTQ flyer draws strong reaction
Because so many people wanted to speak, public comment was limited to one hour and each person was given a minute to talk at the microphone.
Ed Guttery, who was a pediatrician in Lee County for 40 years, was among the night’s critics.
“I’ve seen thousands and thousands of children. The idea that boys and girls should mix in bathrooms, locker rooms or in competitive sports — for the most part in sports — is ridiculous,” he said. “I don’t care if the American Academy of Pediatrics says it’s good, or if the NCAA says it’s good, or Delta Airlines or Coke.”
Another speaker, Linda Milligan urged the board to listen to the people who voted for them.
Earlier in the year: Lee school board adds LGBT History Month to resolutions calendar
“What we ask is that you allow parents to help decide when their children are old enough to discuss their sexuality. Allow parents to decide their family’s value system,” she said. “The few cannot decide for everyone. They can decide for themselves, but I will decide for myself.”
The belief that schools teach an LGBTQ-focused curriculum was refuted by the district, and it was addressed in chair Jordan’s statement.
She said the district does not have an LGBTQ curriculum and follows the standards mandated by the state. Even the state’s required high school health class has an opt-out component for those who do not wish for their children to learn about human sexuality and reproductive health in school.
Other speakers, like county Property Appraiser Matt Caldwell, said the public wasn’t informed of the policy when it was passed last summer.
Caldwell called the school district “out of control.”
“In what way are you going to suggest that the public knew about this policy last year?” he said. “These people weren’t here last year to talk about this issue. They’re here tonight because it’s the first time they ever heard about it in their entire lives and are shocked and amazed.”
The seven-member board unanimously approved the Code of Conduct on June 2, 2020, following public comment at hearings on May 5, May 19 and June 2.
Because the document is refreshed annually, all Lee County parents and guardians are asked to read through the Code of Conduct — and sign a form saying they did — at the beginning of the year.
Board members addressed this as well, with Melisa Giovannelli saying in her end-of-meeting comments that she was unaware of the flyer until October.
“That’s when I first became aware of it and, even at that point, no one said that we had voted on it in June,” she said. “No one at this table said that.”
Cathleen Morgan countered that idea in her comments, referring back to the start of every board meeting when the chair reads a statement that says “all members are expected to read all materials presented for board vote.”
“You cannot say, ‘I didn’t know,'” Morgan said. “Either you didn’t do your job, or what? What can I say?”
Speaking in favor of the policy was the Rev. CJ McGregor of All Faiths Unitarian Congregation of Fort Myers.
He thanked the district and school board for complying with federal laws to protect students and not discriminating against them because of their gender, their gender identity or their sexual orientation.
“If anyone has arrived here this evening criticizing the policies put in place to meet legal requirements and want change, they should consult their legislative leaders and not the school board,” McGregor said. “You are required to follow and interpret the law and are not responsible for writing the law.”
AJ Cranford, who is the president of Pride Cape Coral, said the policy is helping save young lives.
“As the board already mentioned, they’re not educating your children about sexuality or gender identity, and that is not what they’re there to do,” he said.
The policies are meant to look out for the best interests of LGBTQ youth, he said.
“And some of these little things that they’re doing will save their lives, even if you don’t understand this,” he said. “I have seen it firsthand.”
The only student speaker Tuesday night was Devon Cranford, the student body president of North Fort Myers High School.
“I am terrified, genuinely terrified because this is what our parents think is happening in our schools,” Cranford said. “Today I went to government, I went to theater and I went to my public service class and then I went home. I was not indoctrinated with any ideology. I was not beaten over the head with liberal lies. I was simply at school.”
He said he passed up on doing homework to speak during the meeting and wanted to pass on some homework to the parents in the audience.
“Go home and actually talk to your kids, for once,” he said. “Don’t use them as a scapegoat because they are not here tonight, and you are instead.”
He was then interrupted by other people in the audience, which led to a shouting match and a call for order in the boardroom. The student didn’t continue speaking as a result.
The situation was upsetting to many in the crowd, including Superintendent Adkins.
“I was bothered by the reaction and I think that others were as well,” Adkins said. “Remember, students have a right to speak as much as anybody else. So, next time we come together, I would just ask that you respect that when they come forward to speak.”