FEATURE

They Didn't Back Down

Florida educators were targeted for standing up for LGBTQ students. Here’s how they stood strong.
Illustration by Zoë van Dijk

For 17 years, the office of Jackie Jackson-Dean has featured a familiar ornament of welcome: a safe space sticker, adorned with stars, a rainbow motif and an implicit message.

“I want these kids to be able to come to school,” she says, “and feel like at least one person here is safe to talk to.”

Jackson-Dean serves as a school psychologist and the LGBTQ liaison for Pasco County Schools in Florida. As a registered mental health counselor intern and member of the district’s crisis team, she knows better than most straight, cisgender allies what LGBTQ students face. She knows firsthand that safe spaces can be compromised. She also knows they can be reclaimed.

When Pasco County’s LGBTQ-inclusive guidelines became news fodder in the fall of 2018, Jackson-Dean suddenly became a target for those who opposed them. Strangers found her social media profiles, her personal website and phone number. Hateful messages rolled in.

“I hope you die,” some said. “I hope you get cancer.” “Kids would be better off if you were dead.” Eventually, she removed her contact information from the internet. She locked down her profiles. She stopped reading comment sections.

At home, the landline rang day and night. Jackson-Dean never answered.

“I became concerned about my personal safety,” she says. She wondered if the people sending messages would find her address and show up at her home.

But the sticker remains in her office. As the threats increased, as the media attention and scrutiny came crashing in, Jackson-Dean held on to reminders of why she does the work.

“When I would get letters from kids saying, ‘Thank you for standing up for me and who I am,’ I thought, OK, yes,” she says. “I can keep doing this, and I don’t really care what these people are saying.”

But these people had not arrived in her inbox by chance. Jackson-Dean was not picked at random by a movement that lost control. She was chosen.

And at the root of that campaign was Liberty Counsel.

 

What Happened in Pasco County?

According to Jackson-Dean, Pasco County Schools formed an LGBTQ advisory group as early as 2013. It included school nurses, psychologists, social workers and counselors. With everyone already shouldering full-time responsibilities, they didn’t make much headway changing policies or practices. But the conversation had begun.

Three years later, the district named Jackson-Dean as their LGBTQ liaison, offering one half-day a week to devote to the work. She began fielding questions, phone calls and emails from school leaders and educators across the district.

The answers she found led Jackson-Dean and a committee of educators to craft a districtwide best practices guide for supporting LGBTQ students. The guide was reviewed by the superintendent’s staff and the school board’s attorney. It went into effect, at first, with no incident.

In the fall of 2018, the first rumblings of a controversy began. That September, Jackson-Dean received a phone call. District policy did not require parents or guardians be informed when students join clubs, but a parent was concerned students could attend Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) meetings without their parent or guardian’s knowledge or consent.

Then, within two weeks, a P.E. teacher at Chasco Middle School in Port Richey refused to supervise the boys’ locker room after class. He felt uncomfortable supervising a space where a trans boy might change clothes. Despite school leaders’ attempts to handle the issue internally, the story made news.

“Everything kind of blew up after that,” Jackson-Dean says.

Principal Brandon Dahlin-Bracciale describes Chasco Middle School—located roughly 40 miles northwest of Tampa—as a caring and increasingly diverse student community.

He never expected that his school would end up at the center of a coordinated misinformation campaign and the resulting media maelstrom. Dahlin-Bracciale had spoken with the transgender student about where they’d change when they signed up for P.E. This was the first time a trans student at Chasco Middle requested such access, but the district’s guidance was clear: Students had that right.

We are who we are, we're proud of who we are, and we're going to fight back about this.

The P.E. teacher sought outside help, saying he believed his job to be in jeopardy. His call was answered by Liberty Counsel, a nonprofit that professes to focus on cases of religious liberty in its pro bono litigation, policy and education work.

Dahlin-Bracciale says he never suggested the P.E. teacher’s job was in danger. In fact, the school arranged for other staff members to supervise the locker room.

“I felt like we also took care of the needs of the employee at that point,” Dahlin-Bracciale says.

But the misleading narratives got repeated through Liberty Counsel’s online articles, emails and podcasts.

Liberty Counsel’s version of events spread to right-wing news sites. Then, on November 20, Fox News host Shannon Bream invited Liberty Counsel’s founder and chairman, Mat Staver, and the P.E. teacher to appear on her show. Both men repeatedly misgendered the trans student, and Staver echoed claims that the teacher feared for his job.

Liberty Counsel also submitted public records requests to Pasco County Schools. They wanted to see emails and the best practices guide. Simultaneously, they and their supporters probed Jackson-Dean’s professional and personal life. They pointed to details like her LGBTQ lending library as evidence of a biased agenda, despite the library being at her home and self-funded.

Pressure came on all fronts. Liberty Counsel threatened lawsuits unless the district rescinded certain LGBTQ-inclusive policies. The story stayed in the news, constantly casting doubt on Jackson-Dean’s credentials and how to weigh the rights of queer students against the wishes of unaccepting families. At school board meetings, Liberty Counsel supporters denounced and delegitimized trans students’ identities.

“We had a lot of students who were incredibly scared about the implications of all of this,” says Jackson-Dean, who, in her role as a psychologist, checked in with many LGBTQ kids as the controversy unfolded. Trans kids across the district had been using restrooms and locker rooms that corresponded with their gender identity for years without incident, she explains.

Suddenly, that sense of security felt tenuous.

 

What Educators Need to Know About Liberty Counsel (and similar groups)

The Southern Poverty Law Center—Teaching Tolerance’s parent organization—lists Liberty Counsel as a designated hate group due to the rhetoric it uses in justifying its lawsuits, policy proposals and public stances. This includes linking gay and transgender people to pedophilia and using pseudoscience to back up claims in favor of conversion therapy or against comprehensive sex education.

Liberty Counsel takes special interest in schools, where they perceive LGBTQ-inclusive policies and LGBTQ educators as threats to Christian childrearing. They claim that parents have a constitutional right to know if their children identify as LGBTQ; to prevent LGBTQ children from seeking community or counseling related to their identity; to opt kids out of LGBTQ-inclusive instruction; and to keep transgender students from sharing restrooms or changing spaces with their peers.

Liberty Counsel

SPLC-Designated Hate Group

Founded in 1989

Location: Orlando, Florida

Ideology: Anti-LGBT

 

Founded by conservative activists Mathew (“Mat”) Staver—an attorney and former dean at Liberty University School of Law—and his wife Anita, Liberty Counsel bills itself as a non-profit litigation, education and policy organization that provides legal counsel and pro bono assistance in cases dealing with religious liberty, “the sanctity of human life” and the family.

“Liberty Counsel believes the United States Constitution affords parents the right to prevent their children—even LGBTQ children—from ever learning the truth about LGBTQ people and their lives,” explains Diego Soto, a staff attorney for the SPLC’s LGBTQ Rights and Special Litigation team. “That simply isn’t so. The Constitution’s guarantees of free speech, free association and personal autonomy guarantee LGBTQ students the freedom to be LGBTQ at school without interference from parents, teachers or administrators.”

According to experts at the SPLC, there’s a pattern to Liberty Counsel’s engagement with schools.

It often starts with a letter. Claiming to operate on behalf of concerned parents or students, Liberty Counsel will send a complaint to district or school board leaders. Usually, these complaints target LGBTQ-inclusive school policies and practices, such as Pasco County’s allowing transgender students access to bathrooms and locker rooms.

That letter often closes with a demand. In the case of Pasco County, Liberty Counsel concluded with a threat cloaked as an offer:

Liberty Counsel is prepared to assist the Pasco County School Board if it returns to a gender-appropriate and legal policy accommodating claims of “gender identity.” …

Please inform us by close of business on Monday, October 1, 2018, whether the Pasco County School Board intends for Liberty Counsel to be an adversary or an ally in the coming fight.

The threat isn’t an empty one. In 2016, a federal court in Texas prohibited the federal government from interpreting Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 to protect trans students from discrimination. An upcoming Supreme Court decision could ultimately cement this interpretation of federal law. While the SPLC argues that current federal law does protect trans people from gender discrimination, Soto says that schools should protect trans students, even if the courts conclude—or Liberty Counsel argues—that federal law does not require it.

“No matter how the Supreme Court interprets federal law, schools and school districts can do more than what federal law requires them to do to protect LGBTQ students,” Soto says. “Federal law sets a floor, not a ceiling.”

Soto also emphasizes that educators should know LGBTQ students’ constitutional rights. Just like their straight and cisgender peers, LGBTQ students have freedom of expression, speech, assembly and equal protection under the law. This means that public schools cannot restrict them from forming GSAs or affinity groups, expressing their identity through dress or speech, or attending dances with a same-gender date.

“Schools—from the district superintendent down to the teachers—must know and understand their duties and responsibilities under all laws, regulations and policies,” Soto says. “That way, any inconsistencies between what the law is and what Liberty Counsel says the law is will be clear from the start.”

But even if schools do not cave to threats from Liberty Counsel and similar groups, other dangers remain. These letters often contain falsehoods or discredited research. And repeated, misleading storylines have consequences.

“Once Liberty Counsel decides to write a letter of complaint or engage in a lawsuit, it then continues to promote harmful and dangerous pseudoscience about LGBTQ people through its briefs and letters and media that may be repeated through networks of parents and students,” says Heidi Beirich, director of the SPLC’s Intelligence Project. “And that then becomes part of a toxic environment.”

The letters also force schools to take action. They must consult with attorneys.

Often, specific educators named in the complaints are put under investigation and under the microscope.

“We’ve all seen how that works on social media,” Beirich says. “Once someone is targeted—whether the story about them is true or not—there is always the potential for a troll storm and harassment.”

It’s a reality that Jackson-Dean—and other educators—have faced. And even if those educators emerge triumphant, Beirich says, Liberty Counsel has secured a foothold in the community. They will often follow up with new claims, more demands or complaints that the investigation was flawed. Having garnered media attention, they will share and amplify talking points until local supporters can sustain the pressure without their presence.

“They may not have majority support, but they are very well organized, and they are able to take advantage of already-extant networks and a media ecosystem that amplifies the messaging,” Beirich explains. “And without sustained, organized pushback to combat falsehoods and to provide positive, supportive messaging, the illusion will continue.”

Of course, this isn’t just a Florida issue. Liberty Counsel’s methods are closely mirrored by other groups like the Child Protection League in Minnesota and Mass Resistance in Massachusetts. Beirich says that countering them requires preparation and steadfast support of targeted students and educators.

“Better-informed communities ... help disrupt the illusion that the groups and their supporters are in a majority and can help communities provide support to students and faculty who are LGBTQ,” she says.

Otherwise, Beirich emphasizes, the onslaught can be too much.

“The situation with Lora-Jane Riedas demonstrates the kinds of upheaval they can bring.”

Excerpt From 'Best Practices for Serving LGBTQ Students'

WHAT DO I DO IF… The Community Pushes Back?

Here are some basic tips for responding to backlash over LGBTQ-inclusive practices. For more, see the Fall 2017 article “Teaching From the Bulls-eye.”

 

Know the landscape of hate.

Be aware of local and national hate groups that actively target schools over LGBTQ-inclusive practices. The Alliance Defending Freedom and Liberty Counsel sometimes offer free legal counsel to sue schools. Arm yourself with information so you can counter their misleading messages.

 

Find allies in your community.

Build relationships with local business leaders, faith-based organizations, sports teams or other groups that support inclusivity and can show that support in a public, influential way.

 

Support the targets.

If outside groups or online communities target particular students or student groups, bring those students together and give them an opportunity to express their feelings. Let them know you support them, even after the worst is over. Provide counseling and additional security if needed. Make sure public statements do not draw a false equivalency between the demands of hate groups and the needs of LGBTQ students.

 

Do not let misinformation go unchecked.

Outside groups may respond to the implementation of best practices with untrue accusations. Inform students and families of misinformation and set the record straight through your usual channels of communication.

 

View the Best Practices for Serving LGBTQ Students guide.

Being “The Target”

Lora-Jane Riedas remembers, most viscerally, a physical reaction of fear. It was April of 2017. She had just hung up the phone after receiving a call from her principal. The Riverview High School math teacher now faced a professional standards investigation by Florida’s Hillsborough County School District.

Riverview High’s GSA had organized a GLSEN Day of Silence for the following day. Riedas—the co-chair of GLSEN’s Tampa Bay chapter, a GSA advisor and an out lesbian woman—would have to miss it. Liberty Counsel had sent a letter, and Riedas was their focus.

She refers to the contents of that complaint letter as “twists and lies.” Liberty Counsel claimed she banned necklaces bearing the Christian cross; she says she asked students to remove rosaries because they violated the school’s dress code. Liberty Counsel also claimed she inappropriately imposed pro-LGBTQ messaging through classroom decoration and her affiliation with GLSEN.

“They pick a person that sort of becomes the target—the face that they can use,” she explains.

The district cleared Riedas of any wrongdoing. But the damage was done. She shut down her social media accounts as hateful comments and threats poured in. A colleague screened her emails and told her which were safe to open. She worried about her wife, who teaches in the same school.

“All my students that year essentially got a new teacher with four weeks left of school because I was changed,” Riedas says, ruefully. “I was not myself. I was going through hell. And they should not have had to deal with any of it.”

But ultimately, Riedas re-emerged because her support proved as strong as her opposition. Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association Executive Director Stephanie Baxter-Jenkins spoke to the press alongside Riedas to counter the misinformation. GLSEN’s executive director, Eliza Byard, called Riedas to offer support and spoke publicly on her behalf.

“[Liberty Counsel] is used to having control of the narrative because the process silences their target,” Riedas says. “I was not silent.”

Neither were her allies. Riedas stresses the importance of this united front. She learned of the incident in Pasco County and reached out to Jackson-Dean. She offered her support and that of the local GLSEN chapter.

“My advice is: Stick with your support group,” she says. “Make sure you have your people who are going to fight with you and fight back.”

Much like Jackson-Dean, Riedas also found strength in the actions of supportive students.

The Monday following the phone call that changed her life, Riedas found a poster on her desk. Students had written, “We love and support you, Ms. Riedas.” She framed it and keeps it up in her classroom.

Her own safe space sticker, in a way.

 

Resistance and Resilience in Pasco County

Students also played a role in changing the narrative in Pasco County—through the support of allied educators and through their own self-advocacy.

“We had some kids who were living in fear,” Jackson-Dean says. “Then, I also saw something really powerful: I saw a lot of kids come together and actually feel empowered.”

Students wrote to the school board and the superintendent. They went to school board meetings to tell their own stories.

Jackson-Dean says their message was clear: “We are who we are, we’re proud of who we are, and we’re going to fight back about this.”

They didn’t fight alone. Families and peers joined the chorus of support. Dahlin-Bracciale says most Chasco students “rallied around” the transgender boy targeted by the complaint.

And the district didn’t fold; it doubled down.

Those who have faced Liberty Counsel’s ire say they cannot understate the importance of support from community members beyond the school.

“We need them to not be silent,” Riedas says. “It’s the silence that gives [Liberty Counsel and its supporters] permission to be loud.”

Jackson-Dean agrees. As the voices opposing LGBTQ-inclusive work got louder, she emphasized the importance of people voicing their support.

“I thought, our school district needs to hear, ‘Stay the course. ... You’re doing what’s best for kids.’”

For Dahlin-Bracciale, that is what matters most.

“It’s about doing what is best for students,” he says. “When you look at the research, trans students are some of the most at-risk students that we have in our schools. Implementing guidelines that allow them to use facilities that correspond to their gender identity is just one way we can make them feel accepted.”

[The kids] count on me to feel safe and accepted, and cared for, and loved. And that's what I did.

De Palazzo, director of Equality Florida’s Safe Schools, says that shared understanding is the key to Pasco County’s resilience.

“If Pasco did not do their legwork ahead of time, if Pasco did not have the strength of Jackie Jackson-Dean’s good work, I’m sure that there could have very possibly been caving,” Palazzo says. As someone who works with districts across the state to implement best practices for serving LGBTQ students, she stresses the importance of creating buy-in before a controversy arrives, finding a community of vocal support and ensuring district leaders have the education they need to stand up to misinformation. In Pasco, she says, that happened.

“The district stood solid,” Palazzo explains. “There were a lot of meetings that took place to ensure that the district understood how important it was to take care of LGBTQ young people, and they did—and they did the right thing.”

 

Life After Liberty: Why the Work Is Vital

Every year, several school districts, including Pasco County, come together to hold a statewide conference alongside Equality Florida. They discuss their needs and the challenges facing LGBTQ students. At this spring’s conference, one moment stood out to Palazzo as simple but profoundly important.

It was a panel discussion, and all four participating superintendents agreed that the work was courageous and—despite opposition—necessary because it was in their students’ best interests.

The acknowledgment matters. It represents a sea change from when Palazzo started this work. And it comes at a moment when a lot of the data about LGBTQ youth, such as suicidal ideation and mental health concerns, remain dire. In the superintendents’ responses—and in Pasco—she saw hope.

“I’ll never forget the words,” Palazzo says. “I hope our districts … will look toward Pasco for doing the right thing even in the face of great challenges.”

Doing the right thing comes up again and again from educators who have faced Liberty Counsel’s targeted campaigns.

“None of the other stuff, none of the other comments and the personal opinions, have as big of an impact as knowing you’re doing the best you can for all members of the LGBTQ community,” Jackie-Jackson Dean says.

Dahlin-Bracciale explains it this way: “[The kids] count on me to feel safe and accepted, and cared for, and loved. And that’s what I did.”

For Jackson-Dean, doing the “best she can” means returning to the office, even when pressure from the outside threatens to break what she has built. The sticker on the wall is just a symbol. It’s the work that creates the space where students can feel safe, seen or liberated.

It’s resilience that reclaims that work as sacred.

Collins is the senior writer for Teaching Tolerance.