Fort Worth

Fort Worth school superintendent stands his ground against critics

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who has declared restroom regulation to be a priority for the next legislative session, brought his campaign to Fort Worth on Tuesday, repeating his call for the resignation of school Superintendent Kent Scribner and denouncing the district’s policy on accommodating transgender students.

In a news conference before the meeting, Patrick said that the district’s policy is an example of “social engineering” in public schools, and called for its repeal.

“This policy does nothing … to help students” prepare for their careers, he said.

As the board meeting began, Scribner walked in to a round of applause.

Scribner told the packed house that “this is not a bathroom issue.”

“Our children’s health and safety is the district’s top priority,” he said. “I, too, am the parent of a young lady in a Fort Worth ISD school.”

The district’s restroom policy was not on the board’s agenda, so no action was taken. But public comments were allowed and the meeting grew raucous at times, with one person being ejected.

The controversy erupted last month when Scribner told trustees that he had signed guidelines instructing district employees to “acknowledge the gender identity that each student consistently and uniformly asserts.”

Administrators had been working on the guidelines long before Scribner became superintendent in September.

Patrick criticized the policy on several fronts — lack of common sense, violation of the Texas Education Code, interpretation of federal Title IX rules and University Interscholastic League regulations, and the fact that there was no public hearing on the guidelines.

“Let the people testify,” Patrick said.

In a prepared statement Monday, Patrick said that Scribner had placed his “own personal political agenda ahead of the more than 86,000 students attending 146 schools in the district. … Campus safety should be of paramount concern for anyone in his position.”

“Every parent, especially those of young girls, should be outraged,” Patrick said. “I call upon the parents within the Fort Worth ISD to take immediate steps to repeal this stealthy scheme and remove Dr. Scribner from his post.”

Out of bounds

In a separate news conference outside the school administration building before the meeting, former Fort Worth City Council member Joel Burns said Patrick was “out of bounds” for “picking a fight” with the Fort Worth school district.

Burns, a nationally recognized anti-bullying advocate, called Patrick “a bully” and accused him of “coming here to cause” problems after calling on Scribner to resign on Monday.

Burns said the Fort Worth district has been doing just fine without Patrick interfering and that “I’m proud of the work Dr. Scribner and the entire school board has done.”

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Raucous meeting

Twenty people spoke during the public comment portion of the meeting, including several who echoed Patrick’s theme. They were limited to three minutes each.

The meeting grew raucous at times, with advocates on both sides shouting at speakers when the three-minute limit expired. Board President Jacinto Ramos reminded them that children could be watching.

Some waved signs that read “#protectmykids” and “#repeal.”

At one point, police officers forcibly removed a man who they said made a terroristic threat by phone against a trustee. As he was led out, the man shouted, “You are making a mockery of our democracy!”

Opponents and supporters of the policy squeezed into the board room. Supporters carried signs supporting LGBTQ issues. Some carried signs with rainbow hearts that said, “We support Scribner.”

Transgender advocates said the policy protects transgender young people.

“This is not a matter that is up for public vote,” said Jeannot Boucher, 28, a teacher in the Dallas school district and a transgender man. “We don’t vote for discrimination.”

Burns also spoke to trustees. He reviewed the policy’s history, noting that it has been in the works for several years. He said the policy has the potential to save lives among teens.

“What would you give to save the life of one FWISD student considering taking his or her life?” he asked.

The Rev. David Wynn of Agape Community Church in Fort Worth urged compassion.

“Our trans students are the most vulnerable in our culture. They are the target of bullying, shaming and violence. …They are our neighbors, and they are our children,” he said.

Critics’ signs stated #repeal and #protectmykids.

“Taxpayers and parents should be outraged at the shocking violation and breach of the public trust. Get back to education. Repeal the policy,” said Julia Keyes.

Bo French, who ran unsuccessfully last year in the GOP primary for state representative District 99, said he was concerned about a lack of transparency by the administration and board.

“Fort Worth deserves better,” he said. “I demand a repeal.”

Opponents said the policy was approved without input from parents and is an attack on families. They described it as a “secretly written policy.”

“Why is there an attempt to break up the family here?” asked Nicole Hudgens, a policy analyst from the organization Texas Values. “That’s what you are doing here.

“Many people have strong opinions but you have taken away their voice. I don’t understand why these rules were implemented behind closed doors without a vote from the board and absolutely no input from parents.”

Patrick did not attend the meeting.

Safe and respectful

Earlier Tuesday, Scribner told the Star-Telegram’s editorial board that he would not resign.

“I respect the lieutenant governor’s opinion, but I just don’t agree with it,” Scribner said.

Scribner said he was proud of the guidelines that created a “an open and safe and respectful” environment for students.

“I think they provide educators with the ability to make all students more comfortable and confident in a learning environment,” Scribner said. “Children shouldn’t have to wait for their schools to feel safe and full of respect.”

In the crowd

In the crowd gathered outside the school administration building before the meeting, people held signs that read “Peeing is not political” and “Trans Lives Matter.”

Among them were Charlie Hardy and Mike Herrington, a Fort Worth married couple.

“Transgender students should be able to be who they are at school,” Hardy said. “School should be a safe place for all students.”

Nearby, Karen and David Wireman held a sign that said, “This Southlake family supports FWISD.” The Wiremans have a 17-year-old son who is transgender.

“This is not a political issue,” David Wireman said. “Transgender students are absolutely not a threat. Politicians are forcing their religious beliefs on the bathroom rights of others.”

Concern for ‘fear-mongering’

The issue has been a hot topic on social media since Patrick made his comments on Monday and other groups and individuals sent out a flurry of emails on Tuesday, voicing their opinions.

The Rev. J. Scott Mayer, provisional bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth, criticized Patrick for interfering with the school district.

“I urge the Fort Worth school board and its superintendent to remain strong in the face of this fear-mongering as they work for the welfare of all our children,” Mayer said in a statement.

On the other side, Attorney General Ken Paxton sent a letter to Ramos, stating he had legal concerns about the guidelines.

“I have strong concern that this policy violates provisions in the Texas Education Code that give parents an unequivocal right to information regarding their children and is motivated by a misguided view of federal law,” Paxton wrote. “I sincerely hope you will assess these deficiencies in the transgender policy and more as the board deliberates.”

‘Inclusion of transgender students’

The Fort Worth school district has had policies in place for years to support “the inclusion of transgender students,” said Michael Steinert, assistant superintendent of support services for the Fort Worth school district.

He said the guidelines simply put the policies in writing.

Staff has “always supported the inclusion of [transgender] students and made every accommodation possible,” Steinert said.

The guidelines say students have access to restrooms consistent with “the gender identity that each student consistently and uniformly asserts.” They also call on school officials to offer transgender students access to a single-stall restroom or the opportunity to use a restroom when no other students are present.

Just last week, campus staff provided a single-use bathroom to a transgender student to accommodate the student’s needs, Steinert said. Usually, that bathroom is located in the school nurse’s office, he said. The issue comes up about once a year, Steinert said.

The district doesn’t track how many transgender students are enrolled in a district of 87,000. But Steinert said that was not the point.

“It doesn’t matter if we have one or 100,000, we have the responsibility to support the safety and inclusion of those students just like any other students,” Steinert said.

The debate over transgender bathrooms has emerged as a hot political issue in recent weeks, thanks mostly to the recent passing of a law in North Carolina that requires transgender people to use restrooms that correspond with the gender indicated on their birth certificates.

Similar bills have been introduced in other states, and the issue promises to be a point of debate at this week’s Republican State Convention in Dallas.

Staff writers Yamil Berard and Sarah Bahari contributed to this report, which contains information from Star-Telegram archives.

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