One board Member reaps unexpected resistance upon asking to proclaim October LGBTQ History Month

STUART – Martin County School Board Member Victoria Defenthaler wanted to ensure the inclusion and emotional security of any District student experiencing gender or sexual identity issues but inadvertently opened up a can of worms by asking to declare October Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender History Month.

Ms. Defenthaler admitted to her fellow Board members Sept. 15 that she’d originally wanted the request as an agenda item to vote on that day but had been asked by Superintendent Laurie Gaylord to simply bring it up for discussion.

“As a member of the Equality Florida School Board Advisory Committee, I requested that a proclamation and recognition of LGBT History Month be included on today’s agenda as an action item,” she said. “According to the 2019 Youth Risk Behavior Survey data, LGBT students who are bullied on school property or electronically bullied were bullied more than twice that of heterosexual students. LGBT students were three times more likely to consider attempting suicide than heterosexual students. As a school district, it’s critical that we include students of all backgrounds and diverse needs ensuring that no student feels isolated or silenced.”

Superintendent Gaylord then read from a list in her email of daily, weekly and monthly proclamations all valid for the month of October, including Bus Driver Appreciation Day, Domestic Violence Awareness Month, Eye Injury Prevention Month, Farm to School Week, School Lunch Week, National Make a Difference Day, Healthy Lung Month, ADHD Awareness Month and National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, all in addition to LGBT History Month.

One of the reasons that I asked for this to a discussion item with the Board is because there are many, many things that are the month,” she said. “The list goes on and on and on and that’s just a smattering of maybe what you could consider in the month of October. I can go through a whole year of every single month in which there’s a proclamation that would be available to the Board. That’s why I thought this was a way bigger discussion than looking at one select item.”

Board Member Defenthaler, however, attempted to differentiate the LGBT-impacted students from the many other causes also proclaimed during the month of October.

“A lot of the things that Ms. Gaylord just mentioned are very general things and not focused on students, and we’re here to focus on students and their safety and how they feel at school,” she continued. “The educational outcome is realized when students feel safe. So, if we have a group of students who feel marginalized and who are depressed or who feel they’re being bullied, those are the students I’m concerned about.”

Board Member Tony Anderson warned me Ms. Defenthaler, however, that a proclamation alone would have no teeth.

“A proclamation is just words on paper,” he mused. “You can proclaim whatever the heck you want to, but if you don’t follow it up with policy and with procedure and with doing the right thing, it ain’t worth a damn. There’s a lot of things out there that people proclaim, but I think policy is far more important.”

When Mr. Anderson emphasized that the District already had anti-bullying policies that should cover the LGBT students, Superintendent Gaylord explained that such students would fall under the umbrella of National Bullying Month, which is also celebrated in October.

“If you had a National Bullying, you could have LGBT plus many of these other things that would be a form of bullying in the Bullying Prevention Month,” she said. That’s just a suggestion, but I think it was up to the Board to decide which things you would like to support.”

The School Board then took a break from the discussion to proceed through its regular agenda and provide for public comment. Two public speakers addressed the issue expressing opposite opinions. Indiantown Middle School Counselor Lauren Garnett told the Board she agreed with the proclamation and had founded an all-inclusive club on her school campus with the purpose of “creating a safe, supportive and uplifting place for our students of all backgrounds.”

“I know that we can bring awareness and support to our youth in Martin County with the support of our School District by making strides to embrace and acknowledge the lived experiences of all of our students, including our LGBTQ and minority populations,” she said. “We can help them live more fulfilling and authentic lives, and certainly the addition of the LGBTQ+ History Month in our School District would promote respect and inclusion in all of our schools.”

Ms. Garnett’s inclusion of both the Q and the + sign at the end of the acronym underscored just how complicated the ever-changing world of gender and sexual identity could become for the District. While the Q refers to both the word queer – on outdated form of referring to homosexuals – and the word questioning, the plus sign refers to an ever-growing variety of terms, including intersex, asexual, demisexual, non-binary, gender fluid, pansexual, polyamorous and anything else that might be invented in the future.

The parent opposed to the proclamation, Palm City resident Richard Byrd, expressed frustration that such socially sensitive and political issues were being promoted in the schools, including his allegation that Jensen Beach High School Coach Tim Caffey was encouraging his football players to wear Black Lives Matter shirts on the field.

“When are we going to start focusing on teaching children?” he asked. “I hear about BLM, LGBTQ or whatever it is, I’m tired of it. My kid’s sexuality is not your business – it’s not for you to teach them about sexuality. How about we just stick to the teaching of math, science and things of that nature and leave the politics at home.”

When School Board members continued the discussion at the end of the meeting during their member comment portion, most simply wanted to include the LGBT population as part of a broader bullying proclamation in October. The last board member to speak, Michael DiTerlizzi concurred but put a damper on the proclamation proposal with a startling revelation.

“There is a student who’s undergoing dramatic changes in their life right now because a teacher said to that student, you don’t need to be the gender you are, you could be any gender you want,” he said. “That child has fallen into depression, and that child has taken it to such an extreme that the parents and grandparents don’t know what to do with that child. The child has considered taking their own life because of what happened.”

As a result of that alleged incident, Mr. DiTerlizzi rejected Ms. Defenthaler’s request.

“Our vision is to educate every student for success -- that’s what we should be doing – educating our students,” he said. We shouldn’t be telling students you can be any gender you want.”

I’m sorry I can’t support it because I just feel it’s gotten too far out of hand in our whole education system.”

The Board then agreed to a suggestion by Chairwoman Marsha Powers to take a further look at Ms. Defenthaler’s proposal during its Oct. 6 workshop meeting. Public Information Director Jennifer DeShazo said via email Sept. 22 that the District was continuing “to gather facts about the allegation raised by Board Member DiTerlizzi” but declined to elaborate further.

“All teachers are provided with training on a variety of topics related to the establishment of inclusive learning environments,” she said. “Our goal is to ensure teachers have a meaningful understanding of issues faced by LGBTQ students and strategies they can put into place to make sure students feel valued, supported and protected at all times.”

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