Florida Times-Union | By Emily Bloch | May 4, 2022
What otherwise would have been a routine Duval County School Board meeting, with discussions over Teacher Appreciation Month and maintenance projects, morphed into a lengthy and heated culture wars debate discussing gender identity and LGBTQ+ issues on campus.
The Tuesday evening meeting lasted nearly eight hours, wrapping at about 1:50 a.m., but no final decision was made.
The School Board opted to table a vote on a resolution introduced by School board member Charlotte Joyce to support the State of Florida’s Parental Rights in Education Bill, thank Gov. Ron DeSantis — who signed the bill into law — and overhaul the school district’s current LGBTQ+ Support Guide.
Leading up to the board meeting, police tape formed an aisle into the school board building as hundreds gathered to rally in the parking lot. More than 290 public speaker cards were filled out ahead of the meeting by people interested in discussing the resolution.
On one side of the tape aisle, allies wore shirts that said things like “PROTECT TRANS YOUTH” and donned rainbow flags. Across the way, a group held banners and signs that said things like “STOP SEXUAL PROPAGANDA AT SCHOOL” and “PROTECT CHILDREN – SUPPORT PARENTS.”
The Parental Rights in Education Bill has been touted by the DeSantis administration as an effort to better involve parents in a student’s upbringing when it relates to their gender identity.
Nationwide, laws critics consider anti-LGBTQ+ — including this bill — are being portrayed by conservative supporters as efforts to curb the alleged “grooming” of young people. Conservative activists often use rhetoric about sexual grooming and pedophilia when discussing these laws, in attempts to smear their pro-LGBTQ opponents, reports show.
Those themes were heard throughout the night in Jacksonville, with accusations of students being “indoctrinated.”
“I’ve been called dad, I’ve been called mom. But only recently have I ever been called a groomer,” a current teacher said during public comment.
Opponents call Joyce’s resolution an example of political theater.
By law, the district is already required to implement the Parental Rights in Education Act when it goes into effect next school year. The law is currently the center of a lawsuit, with LGBTQ+ advocates arguing that it violates freedom of speech and equal protection rights.
According to the resolution, Joyce also wants the school district to modify portions of its LGBTQ+ Support Guide, which states “it is never appropriate to divulge the sexual orientation of a student to a parent” and supports letting students request using bathrooms that align with their gender identity. While the language in the Parental Rights in Education bill is vague, it alludes to parents being involved in discussions regarding how a student’s identity is viewed on campus.
Duval Schools’ most recent LGBTQ+ Support Guide was not immediately available upon request because it is being reviewed by the district’s legal aides, the Office of General Counsel to see how it complies with the new law, according to school district spokesman Tracy Pierce.
The pitch to table the item came from School Board Member Cindy Pearson, who reasoned that district staff is owed the courtesy to finish reviewing the school district’s current policy and reviewing what changes would potentially need to be made in order for the district to comply with the new law. Board members would have to motion, second and vote for the item to get back on an agenda now.
Joyce called board’s ‘lone strong conservative advocate’
Joyce introduced the resolution, which was first reported on last week by the Times-Union. It quickly garnered public attention from both sides of the aisle. Across the country, there has been a push for GOP representation within school boards with topics including critical race theory and LGBTQ+ issues in the spotlight.
School board seats are listed as non-partisan, but Joyce regularly aligns herself with Republican talking points and values. On Monday, she spoke at the Greater Arlington Republican Club meeting. The group called her the school board’s “lone strong conservative advocate.” Later this month, she will speak along with the chairwoman of Moms for Liberty — a conservative parents’ rights group — at a luncheon hosted by the Republican Women’s Club of Duval Federated.
“Charlotte is a champion for school choice,” the group said in a statement promoting the upcoming luncheon. “Since her election to the Duval County School Board in 2018, she has demonstrated the courage to stand up for conservative values, voting against her fellow board members on many items that relate to fiscal conservatism and parental rights including: tax increases, mask mandates, [and] wasteful spending.”
At the meeting, Melissa Bernhardt of Moms for Liberty thanked Joyce for introducing the resolution Tuesday evening. “You have been seen by your community,” she said. “School is for education, not sexualization.”
Dozens of other public comments thanked Joyce and spoke against educators “indoctrinating” young people.
But not everyone.
“I want to make sure we’re living in facts,” School Board Chairman Darryl Willie said in response to public comment. “We’re not indoctrinating. We’re not grooming. It was unfortunate to hear so many things tonight that aren’t true.”
Following the Times-Union’s initial article last week about Joyce’s upcoming resolution, community members began organizing to speak, both in favor of and in opposition to the bill, during the public comment portion of the meeting.
LGBTQ+ advocates decry Joyce’s bill
Local LGBTQ+ advocacy groups including the youth center JASMYN, the Jacksonville Coalition for Equality and PFLAG Jacksonville spent the last week campaigning against the bill and encouraging community members to speak during public comment against the bill, while the Republican Party of Duval County shared posts on social media encouraging community members to attend and speak in support of Joyce and her bill.
“Now more than ever, the Duval County School Board must stand up in support of LGBTQ students so they can stay in schools and to continue to experience their school as a safe haven for learning and self-expression and healthy development,” JASMYN CEO Cindy Watson said in a statement about the resolution. “Parental involvement is important to student success, but young people often need the support of adults other than parents while they work out their sense of self and identity. Without the safety net of their schools and community partners, they are left completely alone, and far more likely to engage in high-risk behaviors, experience violence, bullying, and self-harm, including suicide.”
Critics of the Parental Rights in Education Bill, who have nicknamed the bill “Don’t Say Gay,” say that the law’s vague language over gender identity can potentially harm young people — particularly those who are not out to their parents yet.
Two middle school students who spoke Tuesday night and identify as part of the LGBTQ+ community said they worried about erasure if the resolution passes.
“Your kids need to know they can speak to an adult who will keep them safe,” one eighth-grader said. “Gender isn’t an ideology. We exist. Transgender people are humans … Everyone so concerned about children’s safety needs to read the bill again. It’s not safe.”
Randall Lessen, a Duval Schools teacher and member of the LGBTQ+ community, said that he fears the law could harm young people in situations where their parents don’t accept their gender identity.
“I’m not here to indoctrinate your kids, I’m here to provide a safe space for your kids. I’m working day and night to make sure your kids have a safe place to be themselves,” he said. “Sometimes, that means letting them talk … sometimes their families say, ‘we are going to beat the gay out of you if you come out.’ This is a tragedy … This is unacceptable. As a teacher, I’m begging you to not support this measure.”
At 11 p.m, when the board is supposed to end its meeting or vote to do anything else, the group decided to hear the roughly 50 to 60 people who were still waiting to speak during public comment for their allotted three minutes, each. After getting through the remaining speakers, the board voted at 1 a.m. to continue onto the business portion of the meeting and finished about half an hour later.
Littlejohn case inspired resolution
Joyce said she was inspired to submit the resolution after hearing January Littlejohn’s story. Littlejohn is the mother of a Tallahassee teenager whose story was spotlighted by Gov. DeSantis throughout his promotion of the Parental Rights in Education law.
DeSantis would tell crowds that Littlejohn’s daughter’s identity was changed without any parental knowledge or consent. In reality, according to the Tallahassee Democrat, public records show that contrary to DeSantis’ story, Littlejohn approached the school to tell them her daughter wanted to change her pronouns and that she would not stop her child from changing her pronouns or name.
“The community needs to know where we stand on this because this is going to be law,” Joyce said. She added that she included the language thanking the Gov. DeSantis and Legislation because “I wouldn’t have known about it [Littlejohn’s instance] if it weren’t for this.”
For the most part, board members did not have an opportunity to voice personal opinions on the bill because of the move to table the item altogether. School Board Member Kelly Coker said she wanted to see the board use its time to discuss more pressing matters.
Elizabeth Andersen, who has previously spoken out against the Parental Rights in Education law, suggested that the board look into a future bylaw amendment that would cut the three-minute speaking period per person during public comment to something shorter in instances like Tuesday night’s where so many people have signed up to talk.
The board ultimately voted 6-1 to table the resolution’s vote until a later date, when the district’s personnel can provide updates regarding what changes may need to be made in regards to applying the Parental Rights in Education law. Joyce was the sole ‘no’ vote.