Port Richey, Florida is a sleepy beach suburb just north of Tampa with a population of fewer than 3,000 people. But it’s also the latest site of a conservative movement attacking transgender children by spinning their equal access to school restrooms and locker rooms as something akin to a sex crime that should terrify parents.
On Tuesday, parents and activists galvanized by the evangelical Christian law firm Liberty Counsel attended a meeting of the Pasco County School Board to protest a single middle school student’s use of the boys’ locker room.
The trans boy, a minor whose name is not being released by the school board, is a student at Chasco Middle School in Port Richey. Due to the school’s LGBTQ-inclusive policy, the student uses the boys’ locker room to change for gym class. But the school’s gym teacher, named by the Tampa Bay Times as Robert Oppedisano, refused more than once to supervise the locker room because he objects to the trans student’s presence.
Oppedisano went to Liberty Counsel — which has been designated an extremist hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center because of its anti-LGBTQ agenda — for help, saying he was told his refusal to do his job could lead to discipline or even his being fired.
In a series of September emails shared by Liberty Counsel, a school staffer complains, “I had to cover locker room because the teacher wouldn’t do it.” The complaint is followed by a suggestion to send the gym teacher home for the day while the school thinks of ways to accommodate him and replace his locker room duties with a different staffer. There is no suggestion of firing or suspending the teacher.
In an email to INTO on Tuesday, Pasco County Schools spokesperson Linda Cobbe said there was no plan to retaliate against Oppedisano.
“I can’t share information about the student other than that he is still at the school,” said Cobbe. “The teacher also is still at the school and has not received discipline; I do not anticipate that he will.”
But Liberty Counsel sent out a series of news releases about the trans middle school student anyway, resulting in a flurry of coverage on right-wing outlets like the Federalist and Townhall. The news releases have scary titles that would capture the attention of most parents, like “Male Teacher Ordered to Observe Teen Girl in Shower” and “School Punishes Male Teacher For Refusing To Watch A Naked Girl In The Boys’ Locker Room.”
Given the tone of the Liberty Counsel press releases — which imply that if the teacher were to do his job and supervise an entire class that includes one trans student, he might as well be a sex offender — it’s not surprising that the Pasco County School Board meeting was packed with concerned parents on Tuesday.
“Our gender is not assigned. We are created male and female. God is good,” said local resident Harry Chamness, according to the Tampa Bay Times. “I trust that you will do what is correct, not what is politically correct.”
At the meeting, school superintendent Kurt Browning tried to tamp down the panic, saying “There have not been any issues on this at Chasco Middle,” and that other school staffers have been accommodating Oppedisano by watching over the locker room instead.
Browning added that children don’t use the showers in the locker room, and most don’t even change their clothes there.
Regardless, Liberty Counsel said in its Tuesday news release (“Male Teacher Will Not Supervise Girl in Shower”) that the school board should completely roll back all LGBTQ-inclusive policies, “rejecting and replacing “Best Practices Guide” and “Gender Support Plan” with a legal policy recognizing parents as primary authority to guide their own children; recognizing biological sex as the standard for district single-sex facilities and programs; and recognizing conscience rights of students and employees.”
The law firm also called on the school to instruct teachers not to use currently-supported teaching tools on LGBTQ issues, such as an LGBTQ history coloring book it says is recommended by the school psychologist. Liberty Counsel also demands that parental permission be required for all school clubs; some Pasco County schools have GSA, or Gender and Sexuality Alliance, groups for LGBTQ and allied students.
Requests for comment emailed to Equality Florida and St. Petersburg’s LGBT Welcome Center did not receive responses by deadline.
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