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An Attempt To Accurately Explain The Viral Controversy Over The Leon County, Florida School System’s Policy On Trans Kids
Progressives have a problem with online outrage and panic, and it makes already-complex policy discussions even more fraught
This isn’t a particularly sexy or easy-to-summarize story, but it was time-consuming and, I think, will help shed some light on a massively misunderstood controversy. While I’m publishing this for everyone, I was only able to spend the time on it that I did because of my paying subscribers. If you find this sort of work useful, please consider becoming one, or gifting a subscription to a friend or family member or enemy.
This piece isn’t really about youth medical transition per se, but if you’re interested in that subject you might want to read this article I published debunking a viral study about the benefits of puberty blockers and hormones, this one debunking a Heritage Foundation study arguing the opposite, and this one evaluating Science Vs’s claim that these treatments are completely uncontroversial.
A couple weeks ago there was a mass Twitter panic about the Leon County, Florida school system. In a now-deleted tweet (I’ll explain), an actor and TV writer named Benjamin Siemon wrote: “This school board in FL voted that if an LGBTQ child is in a P.E. class or attending an overnight trip that ALL the parents in their class will receive a notification about it, which essentially paints these children as sex offenders that require warnings.”
Siemon’s tweet linked to a story in the Tallahassee Democrat that covered the school board meeting where the policy was officially passed. That story, in turn, contained a link to a PDF titled “The Leon County School District’s LGBTQ Inclusive Guide with amendments,” which included language like:
Parent notification example:
All students are allowed to access locker rooms and restrooms that are consistent with their gender identity or be provided appropriate accommodations. A student who is open about their gender identity is in your child's Physical Education class or extra/co-curricular activity. If you are requesting accommodations for your student, please contact school administration to discuss reasonable accommodation options.
It would be hard to overstate the horror that set in on Twitter as Siemon’s tweet spread, and as others found the Democrat article and the linked document. “[M]an, when I was a kid casual homophobia was absolutely rampant but we never had anything like this,” tweeted Ryan Cooper, managing editor of the liberal American Prospect magazine.
“Terrifying things are happening in Florida to harm LGBT youth,” tweeted Daniel Nichanian, a criminal justice reporter. “Like this school board adopting a ‘provision that a school will notify parents—by form —if a student who is ‘open about their gender identity’ is in a P.E. class or on an overnight trip.”
To Kaitlyn Greenidge, the features director of Harper’s Bazaar, this policy was proof that America has reached a dangerous precipice. “A question for historians, as I continue to spiral into anxiety before the 4th--has there ever been a country that got to this point in the fascist checklist that was able to turn the tide? if so, which ones & what steps?” Two tweets later she explained: “[P]rompting this is news that a FL school district voted to put any child who is ‘open about their identity’ on a list that they then send to parents. We're at list making--of children--levels [right now]. We've been here for a while for other [populations] for sure, but this is also an escalation.”
Various experts from other fields chimed in as well. Katherine Hawkins, a senior legal analyst at The Constitution Project, called for immediate action on the part of the federal government. “Ok this absolutely cries out for emergency lawsuit by DOJ,” she said in a now-deleted tweet.
Some foretold a horrific human cost as a result of this policy. “As a child and adolescent psychiatrist, this is going to shatter LGBTQ+ kids[’] spirits, be part of what causes rises in discrimination that damages their mental health, and stigmatize them and LGBTQ+ people in general,” said Chase Anderson, a psychiatrist at the University of California–San Francisco, in a tweet that has — you guessed it — since been deleted. “All because of bigotry, transphobia, and homophobia.”
As part of a broader, since-deleted tweetstorm about the urgent importance of voting Democratic, Rep. Ilhan Omar strongly implied that the Leon County School Board should be ousted, linking to the Democrat story and writing, “Even your city councils and school boards are crucial. This policy for example, requiring teachers to out trans kids, was made by just 4 school board members.”
Certain news outlets echoed these rumors. NBC News reported that “On Tuesday night, the Leon County School Board unanimously approved its ‘LGBTQ Inclusive School Guide,’ which includes a provision to alert parents if a student who is ‘open about their gender identity’ is in their child’s physical education class or with them on an overnight school trip,” while Vanity Fair further disseminated the claim by referencing NBC News’ reporting.
Concerned Facebook users began leaving angry comments on the Leon County Schools Facebook page. “You should be ashamed of yourselves. You are now known around the world for your beyond appalling treatment of LGBTIQA2+ students and hypocrisy. First you say not to say gay then you literally tell a student's entire class and their families. How DARE you take away a student's privacy like that and even worse paint them as sexual predators,” wrote one commenter.
“Nothing says freedom like informing other parents of a students [sic] sexuality for their ‘safety’, your entire board is disgusting,” said another.
I think the reason this rumor spread so quickly is that Florida is currently a flashpoint for many of the hottest culture war fights over K–12 education in the United States — a veritable buffet of liberals’ greatest fears about conservative governance. To liberals, Ron DeSantis is a scary avatar of reactionary conservatism, a Trump-like figure, only far more intelligent and capable, who clearly sees going loudly “anti-woke” as his surest path to the White House. He’s viewed as the driving force behind H.B. 1557, also known as the Parental Rights in Education law (or, to many liberals, the “Don’t Say Gay” law), which he signed in late March and which, most famously, dictates that “Classroom instruction by school personnel or third parties on sexual orientation or gender identity may not occur in kindergarten through grade 3 or in a manner that is not age appropriate or developmentally appropriate.”
So in the minds of many of the individuals circulating this rumor, the heuristic was likely: Something involving Leon County and trans kids → Florida → Ron DeSantis → abusive transphobia. The rumor fit right into a preexisting groove. As the headline of the Vanity Fair article that mentioned Leon County put it: “Ron DeSantis’s ‘Don’t Say Gay’ Law Has Already Made Florida Schools Dystopian Hellscapes.”
But despite the sudden burst of interest in Leon County Schools’ LGBT policies, very few people seemed to have read the Democrat article itself, or the primary document linked therein. If they had, they would have immediately noticed some red flags calling this scary narrative into question. If they’d dug deeper — just a little deeper, in fact — they would have discovered that the truth is pretty far from the Twitter rumors, and significantly less menacing.
In fact, what happened was that an advisory group dominated by political liberals who take progressive positions on trans rights came together to revise a policy for LGBT inclusivity in Leon County. Then, the Leon County School Board, which is similarly liberal in its orientation and which had appointed the group in question, passed that policy. It was viewed as a victory by many of those who saw themselves as defending trans kids. And while the policy does use the language “open about their gender identity,” this is misleading and inaccurate for reasons I’ll explain.
The kernel of truth here is that, because of the (vague) language of H.B. 1557, the school board believed it had to notify parents that their kids might be changing or bunking on an overnight trip alongside kids of the other sex and give them a chance to opt their kids out of such situations. But the policy only applies to very specific circumstances in which it would be quite unlikely that an individual kid would be outed. Moroever, the school board amended the policy, at the last minute, to make this even less of a risk, especially on overnight trips, where the present policy doesn’t involve any notifications about the presence of individual trans kids. These final changes weren’t reflected in the version of the document that the Tallahassee Democrat linked to, which appears to be the one uploaded to the school board website before the meeting took place.
This story is complicated. I’ll try to explain it with as much detail as possible. But I’m hoping that even those uninterested in the policy debate will recognize the pernicious role Twitter played here.
This Isn’t The First Time Progressive Freakout On Social Media Has Fogged Up An Ongoing Legal Issue
Some people might question my focus on social media and progressive journalists when there are important policy issues at stake here, but this seems to keep happening: A real event occurs, and then a bunch of people spread a version of it that is 10% or 20% or 30% exaggerated, often sparking mass confusion — not to mention unnecessary fear — about what actually happened and what the ramifications are.
In January, for example, I wrote about how many outlets completely botched their coverage of the state-level laws supposedly geared at “banning” critical race theory in K–12 settings (in quotes because the laws tend to be so poorly written they don’t seem to usually do that). I noted that “Slate, Esquire, The Hill, [and] Scientific American” all contributed significantly to the misinformation circulating on the subject, in some cases because editors and writers didn’t read one particular document closely enough, and failed to understand or to impart its context.
Yet another version of this just happened. In June of 2021, Florida passed a law mandating public universities conduct annual surveys about students’ perceptions of academic freedom. It smells a lot like political theater, like an escalation of DeSantis’s anti-woke crusade — he crowed about how the bill would help prevent “indoctrination.” But whatever one thinks of the governor’s motivations, there is a fact of the matter here — there is a reality of what the bill’s text (PDF) does and doesn’t say. And almost immediately, an exaggerated version untethered to that text spread far and wide.
It seemed to have been sparked, in part, by a false Salon headline: “DeSantis signs bill requiring Florida students, professors to register political views with state.” PolitiFact debunked this claim pretty quickly, noting that nothing in the bill suggested the survey wouldn’t be anonymous. Moreover, “Cheryl Etters, interim communications director for the education department, said the surveys will be voluntary and won’t ask about individuals’ political beliefs.”
Despite all this, the rumor kicked around for a year and just enjoyed another wave of dissemination as I was working on this piece. As CNN notes in a July 8 article that also points out that Salon changed its misleading headline only recently:
Before Salon's revision, its false claim was promoted this week by various Democratic commentators, by Florida agriculture commissioner and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Nikki Fried (who subsequently deleted the tweet that linked to the Salon article), and even by renowned novelist Stephen King, who has more than 6.7 million Twitter followers and has been a harsh critic of DeSantis.
To his credit, King subsequently deleted the original tweet and acknowledged his error. “That really was fake news,” he acknowledged (accurately). (It’s funny that the tweet in question included “I. Can’t. Even.” You truly can’t!)
But still: Long after this was debunked, twenty-two thousand people retweeted King’s re-panicking. That should tell us something about just how out of control online rumormongering is right now, even among the political tribe supposedly most angered by “fake news” and enamored with fact-checking outfits like PolitiFact.
Oftentimes, these rumors spread as a result of individuals who have big platforms, but who lack the subject area expertise to evaluate the veracity of what they are seeing and retweeting. For example, the First Amendment would make it quite difficult, in practice, to force public university students to register their political views with the state. That doesn’t mean there aren’t many examples of GOP legislatures attacking public university students’ or professors’ free speech — one of the reasons it’s crazy to claim that the left has any sort of monopoly on engaging in acts of censorship and speech-policing — but this would be an extreme example that goes well beyond what these bodies usually attempt to pull off. At the very least, it’s an unlikely claim that merits skepticism. It was not met with much skepticism.
All these dynamics apply to the Leon County Schools rumors: The internet exaggerated and misstated what was in the policy, and the misinformation was driven largely by individuals who had no idea what was going on in Leon County, and who lacked the context to question claims that should have been seen, on their face, as unlikely.
What’s Actually Going On In Leon County, What The Policy Actually Says, And Remaining Areas Of Uncertainty
Before getting into the details, it’s worth noting that this entire controversy is about a very small number of kids. That doesn’t mean the debate is unimportant, because it will also affect trans kids who come out in the future in Leon County, but the fact is that contrary to the idea of the district blasting parents with long lists of names of LGBTQ students whenever they pop up in gym classes or on overnight trips, the policies in question apply to much narrower — and rarer — circumstances.
The district didn’t do itself any favors here. The language in the guide is, frankly, terrible, especially to someone encountering it for the first time without knowledge of the prior context. “A student who is open about their gender identity” seems like it could refer to almost any student — “We’re sorry to report there is a cisgender child in your child’s gym class. Fifteen of them, in fact!” What the school board means by this is kids who have (1) filed a so-called support plan with the school district pertaining to their gender identity, (2) and who have turned down separate accommodations in traditionally single-sex settings.
A support plan is the process by which kids in Leon County can “officially” decide to go by new pronouns and new names, and in some cases gain access to facilities in line with their gender identity. The plan also includes important information like whether and to what extent the student is open about their gender identity. Kids who fill out support plans are offered a chance at separate, private accommodations for situations like changing before and after gym class. That way (for example), a trans girl doesn’t have to change in the boy’s locker room, but rather — the thinking goes — can change in a manner that ensures everyone’s safety and privacy. There are about five kids, out of 33,000 in the district, who have a support plan on file, according to Chris Sands, who is the head of PFLAG Tallahassee, and who we’ll hear from a lot more shortly.
But even these five kids are unlikely to be affected by the new policy, because it kicks in only in situations where a kid who has a support plan on file chooses not to accept alternate accommodations. Tweens and teens don’t generally like to parade their bodies around in front of other people without clothes on. For trans kids, it stands to reason these issues and insecurities are even more likely to arise. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that of the grand total of five kids in Leon County schools who have a support plan on file at the moment, none of them, as far as Sands knew, had chosen not to accept separate accommodations. Rosanne Wood, a member of the school board, agreed in an email. “I[n] my 32-year experience as a high school principal, all of my trans students preferred a private accommodation when it came to dressing/undressing.” (She also made comments to this effect during a recent school board meeting, stating that “99%” of the time, this isn’t an issue because kids want to change privately.)
So while it’s understandable why the “open about their gender identity” phrasing sparked online panic, that language just doesn’t accurately capture the scope of this policy. There was never anything in the policy that would have allowed for parents to be notified about trans kids based solely on how they identify. (And contrary to the initial, viral tweet, this policy has nothing to do with gay or lesbian students.)
Jumping to the actual chain of events that led to this blowup: This spring, a so-called advisory committee sought to rewrite the Leon County School District’s LGBTQ Inclusive Guide, which helps teachers and administrators navigate these sorts of issues. As the Tallahassee Democrat explained, the old version “was pulled last summer after the parents of a middle school child complained that it overstepped their parental rights,” resulting in a lawsuit (some of the parents’ claims are disputed).
The committee, appointed by the school board, had 14 members. One of them was Chris Sands of PFLAG Tallahassee. “We held two in-person meetings on May 10 and May 25, each for about three hours,” he told me. “I think they ran long and we were there a total of seven hours.” He said that of the 14 members of the committee, just one is socially conservative — Sharyn Kerwin, chair of the conservative group Moms for Liberty’s Leon County chapter. (I reached out to the chapter’s leadership for comment but didn’t hear back.)
Some of Sands’ fellow progressives criticized Kerwin’s presence on the committee, but he disagreed with them. “Quite honestly, I thought having her there was important,” he said. “So that we could say all perspectives were represented on the committee. I thought it was a good foil for seeing what challenges she would bring and making sure that what we’d come up with was going to withstand those challenges. So I didn’t have any objection to her, quite honestly.” Either way, those with Kerwin’s views were “outnumbered,” as Sands put it. While not everyone agreed on everything, the advisory board was effectively 13–1 in favor of policies that the majority would call trans-inclusive — that is, to the extent allowed by the law, allowing trans boys to use boys’ facilities, and trans girls to use girls’ facilities.
“So the big, tough part was related to bathrooms, locker rooms, and overnight stays,” Sands said. “The Moms for Liberty folks were talking about biological sex: We don’t want biological boys in the biological girls’ bathroom. That’s kind of their red line. That’s how they see the world — they don’t acknowledge that trans people are real and they don’t want them sharing space where anyone’s changing clothes or [on an overnight trip].” Sands disagreed with that. “Nondiscrimination based on gender identity means trans boys are boys, trans girls are girls — for all purposes,” he said. “That’s where we should be. That’s where we need to get to.” But he said the committee had a strong sense that Leon County school administrators viewed parental notification as a more or less settled issue; the final version of the guide had to offer parents a way to opt out of having their kids share certain traditionally single-sex spaces with classmates of the other sex. (To be clear, at no point were the trans kids in question going to be named.)
The committee’s solution borrowed, again, from the idea of accommodations. The idea was that trans kids who completed a support plan and eschewed private accommodations would be allowed to access the shared facilities lining up with their gender identity, but that, in turn, parents who were concerned about this would have a right to seek “reasonable accommodations” for their own kids not to change or sleep alongside classmates of the other biological sex. “My perspective was let’s maximize the students’ rights within the guardrails of what’s required by laws,” Sands said.
Sands said he was happy with where the committee landed and with the draft guide they sent the school board. “We have had our non-discrimination language for over twenty years, but no consistency on how to implement it,” he said in a follow-up email shortly after we spoke. “So the first thing the guide provides is consistency by setting a minimum standard of expectations for supporting LGBTQIA+ kids. It cites specific laws and policies as justification for those actions. Administrators may not realize some simple things like treating [gay-straight alliances] equally with other clubs being required by federal law or that the district requires dress code policies, which are set by each school principal, to be gender neutral.” He explained that “Even the controversial locker room section provides guidance, references the Welcoming and Affirming Plan for transgender students, puts the transgender student at the center of decision making, handles each situation on a case-by-case basis, requires reasonable accommodation, and acknowledges that transgender students have a right to participate in all school activities. Without this guidance a PE teacher might unilaterally tell a transgender student that they have to use the same common changing area as their biological sex with no accommodation.”
“It’s a good guide,” Sands insisted. “It needs improvement. We have a process for that.”
It’s important to note that on the locker-rooms and overnight-trips front, the Leon County Schools administration and School Board weren’t just responding to pressure from Moms For Liberty or other parents, but also to specific legal concerns. Video from the agenda meeting on the night before the policy was passed shows Darryl Jones, the chair of the board, saying, “I want to talk about the necessity of informing parents” (this is at about 2:29:57 in the recording). He trails off a bit but is clearly expressing skepticism. There’s crosstalk and a brief mention of some other conversation earlier that day where the issue was addressed, but then the two people sitting to Jones’ left — the school district’s attorney, Opal McKinney-Williams, and Superintendent Rocky Hanna — both insist that it’s necessary: “I think we absolutely should notify parents,” says Hanna, and McKinney-Williams quickly adds: “I think the Parents’ Bill of Rights obligates us.” (After I reached out to the public information officer for Leon County Schools a couple weeks ago, he said Hanna would be in touch with me shortly, but I never heard from him and the PIO didn’t respond to a follow-up nudge.)
A moment later, McKinney-Williams explains:
So the Legislature has said that we are not to withhold — and Ms. [Rosanne] Wood[, a fellow board member] and I have had this conversation, we have different viewpoints on what this means but — can’t withhold information inadvertently or purposefully from a parent, including information relating to the minor child’s health, well-being, education, while the minor child is in the custody of the school district. There is an argument that could be brought forth by parents of other students that knowing that information, that that, that that experience could impact the student’s well-being, so they need to be informed about that. And looking at this clarified way of approaching this, it’s only when a transgender student is making the decision to be in certain circumstances where they may be more open, that that obligation would be to inform students[.]”
McKinney-Williams is referencing language from H.B. 1557, which indeed contains a provision involving this sort of parental notification:
A school district may not adopt procedures or student support forms that prohibit school district personnel from notifying a parent about his or her student's mental, emotional, or physical health or well-being, or a change in related services or monitoring, or that encourage or have the effect of encouraging a student to withhold from a parent such information. School district personnel may not discourage or prohibit parental notification of and involvement in critical decisions affecting a student's mental, emotional, or physical health or well-being. This subparagraph does not prohibit a school district from adopting procedures that permit school personnel to withhold such information from a parent if a reasonably prudent person would believe that disclosure would result in abuse, abandonment, or neglect, as those terms are defined in s. 39.01.
As Sands noted (discussing this bill in another context), this is phrased quite vaguely. But the board appeared to be convinced that if they didn’t give parents a chance to opt out of having their kids change or bunk with trans classmates of the other sex, they’d be opening themselves up to legal risks. And in an email, Wood confirmed that the board’s attorney (presumably McKinney-Williams) “did advise us that we had to provide our conservative parents some notifications.” (McKinney-Williams reiterated this in the school board meeting where the policy was passed, at about 3:57:40 in this video.)
The Leon County School Board is quite liberal. This isn’t a surprise given that Leon County went for Biden by about a 2–1 vote in 2020, in a state that went for Trump, but it’s also important context: Of the four current school board members, three are solidly on the left. The one exception is Alva Striplin, who announced in 2017 she was changing her party affiliation from Republican to Democrat because of Trump, but who also said that nothing about her politics was really changing otherwise. (One person I talked to who is very familiar with the district cautioned me against portraying it as all that liberal, given that it is still in the Florida Panhandle and that there is a lot of conservative influence, so take that for what it’s worth.) Of course it isn’t impossible that a liberal school board would, perhaps due to parental pressure, pass a law mistreating trans youth, but the simpler explanation really does seem to be that the body felt constrained by state law.
They also might have felt some pressure as a result of Leon County’s unwitting role as a (locally) high-profile foil for DeSantis and his allies. As Politico explained in March, “Florida’s fight over contentious LGBTQ legislation — dubbed the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill by opponents — had its genesis nearly two years ago, not in the halls of the state Legislature but in a September conversation between a Tallahassee mother and her 13-year-old teen.” That would be the same lawsuit that got the Inclusive Guide pulled in the first place. As the Democrat reported, “State Rep. Chris Latvala, R-St. Petersburg, chair of the education and employment committee in the Florida House, said hearing about the lawsuit strengthened his interest in securing transparency among school districts, their LGBTQ guides and parents.” Moms for Liberty appears to be the most influential conservative group advocating against trans-inclusive policies in Leon County schools, and DeSantis just spoke at their annual convention. On top of that, Leon County has sparred with the state government over mask policies: “Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran withheld the salaries of all Leon County School Board members Friday, even though the district walked back its COVID-induced mask rule this week,” reported the Democrat last fall.
So there is, to use the technical term, ongoing beef between the liberals who run Leon County and the conservatives who, from within Leon County, run Florida — foremost among them DeSantis himself. It seems like the former have every incentive to be cautious and risk-averse so as to not spark further conflict (as evidenced by their close read of state law during their crafting of the Inclusive Guide), while the latter have every incentive to monitor Leon County closely to look for more opportunities to stoke the culture war flames. Nothing Leon County does, at this point, is likely to slip under the radar.
I first spoke with Sands four days after the guide he and his committee had sent to the school board was passed. “It was a win for us on Tuesday,” he said. He acknowledged that “what we've got is not what we ultimately want” — meaning no parental notifications at all — but said that he was happy with where things ended up. He was baffled by the online rumormongering. “I had been reading stuff on Twitter and it’s so wrong that I can’t even find a starting point to correct it from.”
Sands had been satisfied with the version he and his committee members sent the school board, but he was even happier with it after the meeting where it was passed, because during that meeting the board changed the notification system significantly. As Sands understood it, instead of a notification saying something like “There’s a trans kid in your child’s gym class who will be changing with kids of the other biological sex — if you have privacy concerns, please contact us so we can seek accommodations for your child,” all parents of kids in P.E. classes would get a form at the beginning of the year saying something like “There may be a trans kid in your child’s gym class. If you have privacy concerns, please contact us so we can seek accommodations for your child.” Presumably, the kids of concerned parents could then change privately regardless of whether or not there was a trans kid in their class, meaning that there’d be no need to send a notification about a specific trans kid.
As for overnight trips, similar deal: Sands explained that instead of being notified about a specific child, parents could receive notification beforehand that this might be a possibility and be asked to inform the school if they want their children to bunk only in truly single-sex spaces. This situation would be easier to resolve without individual trans kids being spotlighted than those involving locker rooms, because it would just be a matter of making sure the kids whose parents expressed concerns were housed in different rooms or bunks from their trans classmates. There’d be no need to inform anyone about the presence of a specific trans kid.
Sands didn’t think this would entirely solve the problem he and the school board were concerned about — he said that the system was a work in progress and he could imagine certain situations in which trans kids were still spotlighted. But overall, this struck him as a significant improvement over the notification system that was in the original version of the guide they had sent to the school board (and remember that he’d been happy with that version too, viewing the notifications as a necessary compromise).
It’s worth noting that the possibility that this policy would out a trans child might not be zero, but it’s pretty low. It would apply only in cases where the child chose to come out publicly, change their name and pronouns, and so on, and in which everyone else would therefore be aware that that had all happened. (Possible exceptions might be kids who transferred schools, transitioned long ago, or something along those lines.) Plus, the inclusivity guide — both the draft version and the one eventually passed — is clear that kids themselves get to decide who within their school knows about their gender identity.
I do think one of the reasons the rumors spread was that the initial Democrat article didn’t quite capture what happened at the meeting and what the policy said, even before the last-minute amendments. If you read the article closely, you’ll see that while it notes that “The policy language does explicitly say a student’s sexual orientation, gender identity or expression ‘should not be shared with others without their input and permission,’” it also gives significant space to those who spoke up at the meeting who were concerned about outing, without making it clear that their concerns didn’t quite line up with the policy being debated. The Democrat also didn’t provide the necessary context for the “open about their gender identity” language. There the line that sparked concern was: “What drew the most debate was a provision that a school will notify parents — by form — if a student who is ‘open about their gender identity’ is in a physical education class or on an overnight trip.” Again, it’s the school board’s fault that the language is so confusing, but the fact of the matter is that this language isn’t technically true. A student can be “open about their gender identity” in the colloquial sense of the term without being affected by the policy at all. Finally, the Democrat article simply doesn’t note that there were last-minute amendments having to do with how the notifications would work, and that the version of the document it links to in its very first sentence — and that everyone began passing around — didn’t yet include those amendments.
Part of the problem may have been that the Tallahassee Democrat reporter who usually covers this beat, Ana Goñi-Lessan, “was out that day with a medical emergency,” according to Sands (I was able to confirm this). She was replaced by a Democrat contributor who is still in college, who doesn’t usually cover this beat, and who was thrust into the exceedingly difficult position of having to squeeze a lot of information about a fast-moving debate into a news article. It can both be true that she did the best she could with a difficult, last-minute assignment on the most fraught subject imaginable, and that her final article left out some potentially useful details and points of clarification.
Sands emailed me on July 7, five days after our initial chat, and his cheerful tune had darkened a bit: “I have gotten a copy of the final language in the Inclusive Guide for Leon County Schools,” he wrote. “I have to say the critics are not entirely wrong. I thought the amendments that Rosanne Wood proposed fixed the issue of notifications for PE classes and overnight stays and they were not entirely successful in that.” If you click here to read the passed version of the document, you’ll see what he means.
While the “Overnight activities” section is in line with what Sands believed the board had decided on, written in a way geared toward preemptive notification that doesn’t highlight the presence of individual trans kids, or even mention trans kids at all…
…the “Locker Rooms” section still has vestiges of the old language:
The language of the “Parent notification example” is compatible with the idea of parents being notified beforehand, in a general way — “A student who is open about their gender identity may be [emphasis mine] in your child’s Physical Education class or extra/co-curricular activity.” But above that, the guide seems to state clearly that this notification won’t be sent at the start of the year or semester, but rather “upon notification or determination of a student who is open about their gender identity, parents of the affected students will be notified of reasonable accommodation examples available.”
If you go back and watch the end of the school board meeting where this was passed, you can see both why Sands was confused and why he was incorrect about the final policy that was passed. At around 3:53:40, Wood expresses concerns about individual kids being spotlighted in overnight trip settings, and discusses an amendment that would shift things toward a preemptive notification system and remove the parental notification example from the guide (since it focuses on an individual trans student).
There’s some more discussion, and then at 4:06:36 Rocky Hanna, the superintendent, sums things up:
[T]he one sticking point [where] I see the disagreement is the notification at the time versus the notification at the beginning of the year that “There may be an instance when….” So I think what she's [Wood’s] proposing is notification at the beginning of the year, when your child's in the course that there may be an instance when this happens, this occurs. And let us know now, at the beginning of the year, if you want accommodations made on the front end. Where it currently reads, is if there is a child that is in a particular class, the parents would then be notified and make an accommodation. Right? I think that's the only real wedge [remaining].
Wood then explains that in the context of gym classes, she’s worried that focusing notifications on a particular class “narrows down who's in that class and I think creates more potential for bullying and so forth.” She’d prefer that if the system is going to involve notifications pegged to individual trans students rather than a preemptive notice, parents of all the kids using the locker room in question be notified, rather than just those in the class in question. Along those same lines, Hanna mentions a potential drawback of a preemptive system, which is that if the school notifies all the parents of kids using locker rooms at the beginning of the year (or semester), the school might be inciting unnecessary concern, given that there may well not be any instances of trans kids turning down accommodations anyway. (Again, the fact that this is a rare-to-nonexistent occurrence in Leon County doesn’t render the conversation unimportant, but it comes up repeatedly in the meeting and might explain why the school board members, who are clearly concerned with protecting trans kids’ privacy, don’t appear particularly freaked out about the compromises they’re being forced into by the state.)
I had to listen to this whole last part of the meeting several times to fully understand the ins and outs of the conversation, but at this point in the meeting, the board is debating three different options for locker rooms:
1) Preemptively notify all the parents at the beginning of the school year/semester so that parents can seek accommodations for their kids (Hanna is concerned this will raise parental concerns for no reason in most cases)
2) Notify parents in an individual class if a trans kid turns down an accommodation (Wood is concerned this will be a gateway to bullying)
3) Notify parents of all the kids using locker rooms if a trans kid turns down an accommodation in a specific gym class
The board appears to settle on (3). But it’s easy to get confused because there’s so much crosstalk, because the conversation jumps around so much, and because the board did settle on preemptive notifications for overnight trips (you just stick a couple sentences on the permission slips everyone has to turn in anyway). At 4:18:25, though, Alva Striplin reads out the language of the locker room section, with the changes being proposed, and it matches what’s in the final document. At about 4:26:00, the guide is approved with these new amendments.
The locker room section of the current guide does say “parents of the affected students” will be notified, which casts a narrower net than what Wood was looking for. In a follow-up email, she said she’s going to propose that this section be changed in a way that will fix this and clarify some other aspects of the policy that are causing confusion.
Her proposed changes are in bold:
All students are allowed to access locker rooms and restrooms that are consistent with their gender identity or be provided appropriate accommodations. If the parent and student have requested privacy and nondisclosure about their child’s gender identity within their Plan and have accepted an accommodation regarding locker room use that will provide privacy for all students, no further action is needed by school administration. Upon notification or determination of a student who is open about their transgender identity and is not utilizing a privacy accommodation, parents of all students who use locker rooms for changing clothes will be notified of reasonable accommodation options available. (See the sample parent notification example below.)
If accommodations are desired, decisions should be made on case-by-case basis, and should be student focused, with support of parents, and district and school staff. However, no student should be required to use a single-user restroom.
Parent notification example:
“All students are allowed to access locker rooms and restrooms that are consistent with their gender identity or be provided appropriate accommodations. A student who is open about their transgender identity and is not utilizing a privacy accommodation may be in your child’s Physical Education class or extra/co-curricular activity. If you are requesting accommodation for your student, please contact school administration to discuss reasonable accommodation options.”
(Update: When I first posted this, Wood’s new language wasn’t properly marked as such. I’ve now fixed that.)
The Leon County School Board is describing this guide as a “living document,” and is planning to revisit it in six months, at the start of the spring semester. “It's not perfect,” said Wood in an email, “but the guide gives a lot of protection for our LGBTQ+ students.”
Journalism Is Hard And Annoying And Time Consuming But Probably A Better Way To Resolve These Issues Than Twitter
I don’t know much about Leon County, Florida, or about this policy dispute. What you just read is a fairly bare-bones explanation of this situation. But even this probably took me 30 or 40 hours, because I had to contact a bunch of people, read old coverage of this debate, watch some of the two meetings, and figure out which details to include here. And after all that, the final answer is ambiguous and a bit unsatisfying: Siemon’s initial, viral tweet is clearly false — in fact, the policy applies only to trans kids rather than LGBTQ ones, and only to trans kids who have gone through a very specific bureaucratic process and chosen not to accept an accommodation — and to his credit he deleted it, but the policy itself is a work in progress. Leon County Schools will not be creating menacing lists of LGBT students (contra Kaitlin Greenidge, the county is not descending into fascism), but everyone involved is trying to figure out how to get the policy right amidst pressure, including legal pressure, coming from different directions.
What frustrated me, as it so often does, was how many professional people in respected positions enthusiastically disseminated damaging claims about the Leon County School Board — a real-life body consisting of actual human beings — without fact-checking them one iota. It’s unrealistic to expect random Twitter users to exercise such discretion, but journalists and other individuals in positions of authority really need to do better. When Katherine Hawkins, a respected legal mind, screams on Twitter that a school board could be violating federal law without checking whether that is the case, that’s deeply unprofessional and makes the world a worse place. When Chase Anderson, a respected psychiatry fellow, screams on Twitter that a policy he knows nothing about will “shatter LGBTQ+ kids[’] spirits,” that’s deeply unprofessional and makes the world a worse place. It seems unlikely Hawkins would ever level such an inflammatory and under-evidenced accusation at someone in a legal brief, or that Anderson would do so in a research paper. Twitter just has a profoundly deranging effect on its users (I can speak from personal experience), and those tweeting under their own names from positions of authority urgently need to adopt a stance that is less “I must chime in on every rumor that crosses my path” and more “First, do no harm.” Along those same lines, it’s pretty inexcusable that NBC News, which was in a position to do actual reporting on this subject, simply decided to pass off a scary rumor, only partially supported by that ambiguous Democrat article, as true. (Sands said I was the only journalist who reached out to him since the rumors about the guide blew up.) And don’t even get me started about a sitting member of Congress pointing an accusatory finger at a distant school board without knowing anything about the on-the-ground specifics — Ilhan Omar used this as an opportunity to argue that people need to vote for Democrats, but the policy was passed 4–0 by a technically all-Democrat school board!
It’s also worth noting that while most of the people who spread this rumor did so out of a concern for trans kids, spreading a rumor like this hurts trans kids. This is an obvious point: If due to laziness, a blinding desire for internet clout, or both, you overstate the threat some group faces, you are causing harm to that group for no reason at all. I wish people who don’t seem to have other moral or professional qualms about engaging in online rumormongering would at least pause and think about the impact their behavior has on the folks they’re supposedly concerned about.
Hopefully this particular rumor will die out. The Democrat did publish a fact-check by Goñi-Lessan that at least clears up some of the viral misconceptions circulating about Leon County. It seems very unlikely, however, that it will get a fraction of the attention as Benjamin Siemon’s original, viral tweet.
Image: TAMPA, FL - JULY 15: Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speaks during the inaugural Moms For Liberty Summit at the Tampa Marriott Water Street on July 15, 2022 in Tampa, Florida. DeSantis is up for reelection in the 2022 Gubernatorial race against Democratic frontrunner Rep. Charlie Crist (D-FL). (Photo by Octavio Jones/Getty Images