The Marion County Board of Public Schools passed a resolution Tuesday night prohibiting transgender students from using the public bathroom of their choice in schools under its jurisdiction.
The resolution, which passed 4-1, states that beginning April 27, students must use single-sex restrooms or locker rooms that correspond to their sex assigned at birth.
The resolution also stipulates that schools must provide separate but equal alternative gender-neutral facilities. This makes Marion, directly neighboring Alachua, the first county in Florida to institute this kind of policy in its public schools, according the Hannah Willard, policy and outreach coordinator for the LGBTQ+ advocacy organization Equality Florida.
The vote took place after an emergency school board meeting on Tuesday. The meeting addressed concerns by John Kerley, principal of Vanguard High School, who reported earlier this month that a transgender student was using one of the school’s men’s bathrooms. According to members of the audience during public comment, Kerley offered the student a separate, single-stall, gender-neutral restroom as an alternative, which the student refused.
During the meeting, 46 members of the public spoke in support of or in opposition to Resolution 16-001. They discussed the legality of the resolution, its impact on student safety — both of transgender and cis-gendered, female students — and the nature of gender identification and sex.
According to Marion County resident Brandon Cook, if women were allowed in men’s bathrooms, men’s “natural strength…to throw [women] around” would endanger women, a feeling that echoed other supporters of the resolution.
Opponents of the resolution, however, argued that the resolution itself would endanger the safety of transgender students.
“You’re telling the students to kill themselves,” said Damien Leonhardt, a high school student in Marion County, who said that bullying over his identification as a transgendered male became so severe that he switched to home schooling.
Ebonee Butler, a speaker during public comment, said that what constitutes being “male and female is black and white” and that she believed Marion County should keep “boys in the boys’ room and girls in the girls’ room.”
“We must stand on principles, we must stand on what is real,” Mark Sapp, another of supporter the proposed resolution, said. “There are certain things that cannot be changed.”
“You’re telling the students to kill themselves,” said Damien Leonhardt, a high school student in Marion County.
Hannah Willard, of Equality Florida, conversely argued that Resolution 16-001 is “inappropriate and has no basis in fact.”
Critics of the recent resolution also pointed out that the school district’s actions are in direct violation of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which states that schools are responsible for prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sex. In a letter sent to the school board on Tuesday, the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida wrote that “Title IX’s prohibition on discrimination ‘on the basis of sex’ protects students from discrimination based on their gender identity, gender nonconformity, or transgender status.”
“I’m just embarrassed to be part of this school system that would enforce a law that would make people so uncomfortable,” said Riley Giberson, a Vanguard High School junior, “including people I go to school with and people I don’t.”
The board still has to deal with several legal questions, such as how to enforce the resolution and provide gender-neutral restroom areas for transgender individuals.
Bobby James, the only board member to vote against immediately enacting the resolution, urged the committee to first attend workshops that would assess the potential costs of the resolution, including litigation and constructing gender-neutral restrooms and locker facilities. During public comment, speaker Randy Osborne said that while legal suits are inevitable, Marion County would be on the right side of litigation, and that the Liberty Council — which has previously worked on cases such as the 2015 Supreme Court Case, Burwell v. Hobby Lobby — has made an open offer to support Marion County if need be.
Superintendent of Marion County Public Schools George Tomyn said during his comments that the resolution more closely resembles a ruling and is therefore subject to different procedural steps than the ones taken Tuesday night. He also questioned whether an emergency meeting should have been called at all, since emergency meetings should only stem from an immediate risk to public health.
“We are in a lot of joy today,” said Luis de Jesus, a pastor who led counter-protests in favor of the resolution. “We knew for sure that we were gonna have the favor [of the school board] today, and it was gonna pass.”
The opponents however, many of whom had broken out into tears, had a different message, gathering outside the Marion County Public Schools’ Superintendent’s Office to lead a chant.
“This is not over,” they repeated in unison. “This is not over.”