After LGBTQ+ month receives pushback, Martin County School Board expected to discuss importance

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Treasure Coast Newspaper | by Sommer Brugal | October 5, 2020

MARTIN COUNTY — What does it mean for a school district to be inclusive for all students? 

The School Board Tuesday will be weighing that question and discussing whether recognizing October as LGBTQ+ History Month could further enable the school community to do so. 

The proposition was first presented last month by School Board member Victoria Defenthaler, who said taking the stance would show a group of students and staff they are cared for and heard.

“There’s a segment of our student body that feels isolated,” Defenthaler, a member of the Equality Florida School Board Advisory Committee, told the board. “I want to be sure LGBTQ+ students know that we support them, are helping them feel safe and that we care about them.”

The proposition was first presented last month by School Board member Victoria Defenthaler, who said taking the stance would show a group of students and staff they are cared for and heard.

The notion, however, was met with pushback and hesitation from other board members and Superintendent Laurie Gaylord. There are many things that are “the month,” such as disability-awareness and lung cancer-awareness months, Gaylord said.

While board member Christia Li Roberts echoed Defenthaler’s call to ensure all students felt safe while at school, she stopped short of supporting the motion. Instead, she suggested a proclamation that would recognize a multitude of students and concerns every month to avoid singling out one group of students. 

Perhaps the strongest opponent was board member Michael DiTerlizzi, who said he would oppose the proclamation. For him, the underlying issue was bullying.

While board member Christia Li Roberts echoed Defenthaler’s call to ensure all students felt safe while at school, she stopped short of supporting the motion. Instead, she suggested a proclamation that would recognize a multitude of students and concerns every month to avoid singling out one group of students. 

Perhaps the strongest opponent was board member Michael DiTerlizzi, who said he would oppose the proclamation. For him, the underlying issue was bullying.

Opposition from within the board, Defenthaler said, was unexpected and concerning for many in the community, including Robert Griggs, a parent of a 16-year-old transgender student.

His son’s experience hasn’t been perfect, but listening to the disconnect between the board and school leadership was “just mind blowing,” Griggs told TCPalm.

In a letter to board members following the meeting, Griggs wrote he was “appalled by the uninformed and disrespectful positions shared” on the topic.

“In the three years since my child came out as trans-male, none of his teachers, counselors or administrators ever suggested he was ‘choosing’ a transgender identity; none have equated his gender identity to ‘wearing glasses;’ none ever told him they ‘didn’t have a dog in this fight;’ none had ever spoken against him in a public forum” until last month’s meeting, he wrote. 

Both Gaylord and board members “almost unanimously, told (my son) that they discount his very existence and see him as little more than a second-class distraction, a bullying victim to be fixed,” he wrote. 

District employees who have worked to create a welcoming space for LGBTQ+ students must have felt disheartened and disappointed by the discussion, he told TCPalm. 

Opportunity for education 

Martin County schools has a number of support systems related to inclusivity, including a transgender and gender non-conforming student support plan and an LGBTQ+ student support guide for educators and staff.  

Middle and high schools also have Gay Straight Alliance clubs, which meet regularly to provide support, fellowship and camaraderie for students, district spokesperson Jennifer DeShazo said. 

Social workers also meet regularly with students to ensure they’re supported, she said. 

Despite the various policies school districts can have, young people still can struggle with the stigmas associated with the LGBTQ community, said De Palazzo, safe and healthy schools director for Equality Florida, a civil rights organization dedicated to securing full equality for the state’s LGBTQ community.

That’s why creating a safe space for LGBTQ+ youth is critical, she said. Martin County School Board members would find value in additional education around LGBTQ+ needs and the equity they need to see their lived experience honored, she said. 

Palazzo on Tuesday is expected to present data and statistics to the board regarding Florida’s LGBTQ+ youth community, such as mental health and overall wellness. 

For her part, Defenthaler said she hopes Tuesday’s discussion educates and brings awareness to an issue that can help ensure all students are cared for. 

“We really have to put our personal views aside,” she said, “because those have nothing to do with our duty as public servants, which is to support students and staff.”

Photo: The Martin County School Board discusses plans for the start of the 2020-2021 school year for Martin County public schools during a meeting Tuesday, July 28, 2020, in Stuart. The School Board voted 4-1 during an emergency meeting to begin the school year on August 11, the district’s original start date. ERIC HASERT/TCPalm