Sarasota Schools superintendent addresses gender guidelines, character program at board meeting

Sarasota Herald-Tribune | By Steven Walker | September 7, 2022

In a meeting that lasted over three hours, the Sarasota County School Board convened Tuesday for the first time since conservatives flipped the board majority on Aug. 23.

Despite the outcome, the current board retains its 3-2 liberal-learning majority for now, until after Thanksgiving and the newly elected members are seated, making for a 4-1 conservative advantage. The board voted to approve the advertisement of updated district policies — many of which were changed to adhere to new education laws that took effect this summer after the Legislature and Gov. Ron DeSantis drove several changes.

Some votes, such as one to terminate a lease with the county, reflected the current political makeup of the board, with members Bridget Ziegler and Karen Rose voting in dissent.

Superintendent’s report

Superintendent Brennan Asplen addressed many of the same issues as during his Aug. 31 presentation to the Sarasota Rotary Club, where he discussed the district’s A rating, gender guidelines and a freeze on acquiring new books.

In his 40-minute Superintendent Report, Asplen said he was looking to clear up some misinformation circulating in the community. He said that the district’s approach to gender identity has not changed since 2018, but that the district had simply sent an internal communication to help principals navigate these issues.

The Herald-Tribune reported on the internal communication in an article published Aug. 16. The communication stated that a “parent must be notified” if district staff is told by a student they are gay, gender questioning or transgender. The only exception is if a student feels endangered, in which case the district would contact the Department of Children and Families.

Board Member Tom Edwards, who is gay, said the district has always worked with parents in situations like this because it’s in the best interest for all parties involved.

“I think it’s really important for the community to know (there’s) nothing new here,” Edwards said. “We’ve been doing it all along and it’s been transparent.”

Despite this assertion, the internal communication leaked to parents and community members, which caused a flurry of emails to the district and social media posts regarding the guidelines. Amid the passing of the Parental Rights in Education Act, dubbed “Don’t Say Gay” by critics, there has been heightened attention on attacks against LGBTQ youth. Some activists have expressed concern over how parental notification could unintentionally harm LGBTQ students by outing them.

Asplen also touched on the Character Strong program, which is a character education program approved by the School Board, and the lack of an opt-out option for parents. The program falls under state-required curriculum and no opt-out is allowed, he said.

“There are things that you can opt-out of, but Character Strong is not one of those,” Asplen said. “But required instruction, you can’t opt out of those. So I want everybody to understand that.”

Some speakers during public comment argued that the district is mandating Social Emotional Learning, or SEL, through the program. While the speakers referred to SEL in a negative connotation, several teachers in the district have said teaching students conflict management and social skills is vital for development.  

Approval to advertise policies on health, textbooks and more

Under new business, the School Board voted to approve the advertisement of revised district policies to adhere to new laws, such as the Parental Rights in Education Act. Many changes were minor, with updated wording or removed phrasing to keep the district in line with current Florida law.

Screenshot of the list of updated district policies from the Sept. 6 School Board agenda

In total, the board approved 15 revised policies, and all but two were unanimous. Ziegler dissented on textbook adoption, evaluation and objections. 

One notable policy update was to allow parents to opt their student out of medical care from school nurses. Board member Shirley Brown asked parents to think twice about opting out, because even minor things like a scraped knee would require the school to call the parent.

“Before you opt out of all health services, (know that) we do not vaccinate and we will not vaccinate or give your child any shots or anything,” Brown said. “But (rather) the normal things that we would do in the clinic.”

Regarding instructional materials in schools, one revised policy now states that a district approved list of all textbooks and instructional materials will be publicly available on the district’s website. 

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