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Transgender teen who prompted Broward school shakeup had been suing for two years

Broward Schools Superintendent Peter Licata

A day after the Broward school district reassigned five employees because of a controversial sports issue involving a transgender student at a high school, Broward Schools Superintendent Peter Licata said on Tuesday that an anonymous tip triggered the investigation and that the school district will change its processes because of it.

Though the student’s parents sued the district more than two years ago in hopes of keeping her on female sports teams, Licata said he was “unaware of any lawsuit” and it had no bearing on his decision.

On Monday, the school district reassigned five employees — James Cecil, the principal; Kenneth May, the assistant principal; Dione Hester, the athletic director; Jessica Norton, the information management technician; and Alex Burgess, a temporary athletic coach — “pending the outcome of an investigation into allegations of improper student participation in sports,” said John Sullivan, a school district spokesman.

READ MORE: Broward high school students stage walkout in support of transgender student

The situation involves a transgender female student who was playing volleyball for the female team at Monarch High School, located near Coconut Creek, district officials confirmed. In the state of Florida, it is illegal for transgender female students to play in female sport teams at public schools.

At a brief press conference Tuesday morning from the school district’s headquarters in Fort Lauderdale, Licata said he got a call last Monday, Nov. 20, from a “constituent” whom he declined to name or describe, and that that person raised the issue to him directly.

He discussed it with his executive cabinet that afternoon, he said. On Monday, Nov. 27, when the district resumed operations after the Thanksgiving holiday, Licata launched an investigation into the matter.

Licata said he couldn’t speak about the investigation itself because it’s ongoing, but said “it’ll be a fair investigation.”

“These individuals from several different bargaining groups were removed from the school and they’re at a different locations and they’re working. That’s not an indication of discipline. It’s an indication that we want to make sure that when we investigate it, it’s done properly and appropriately,” Licata said.

“We want to make sure we do this right. Nobody is guilty of anything at this point. That’s what the investigation is for,” he added.

Student sued two years ago

Though the case came to light publicly this week, the student’s plight has been the subject of a court case since June of 2021.

The player’s family filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against Gov. DeSantis in the summer of 2021, naming the Broward County School Board and then-Superintendent Robert Runcie as defendants.

Her parents argued in the suit that she had no competitive advantage and had been on testosterone blockers since age 11.

At the time, the student was 13, a rising-eighth grader for whom sports was a “source of pride” and “the major source of her social and friendship network,” the lawsuit laid out.

The student identified as a girl as early as pre-school, wearing pink clothing and seeing herself as a girl, the suit says. By the time she was five or six, her parents realized she was transgender.

She took on a girl’s name and has used it since second grade. She joined a girl’s soccer team at age 7, the year she was diagnosed with gender dysphoria.

When she was 11, her endocrinologist recommended she take hormone blockers to stop testosterone, so she did. Two years later, she began taking estrogen, “and will continue to do so for the rest of her life,” the lawsuit says. “This will allow her to live as the girl/woman that she is.”

She has “lived as a girl for years now,” the suit says, “and this is her true identity.”

The law - and Broward’s implementation of it - would “decimate her social network,” stigmatizing her, and separating her from her peers and teammates, the lawsuit said.

The student was an active member of the school soccer team at the time the suit was filed - her life revolved around the sport, the suit said - and was playing on both a travel team and a recreational team.

She was preparing to try out for volleyball.

“A person’s gender identity is a core part of their self-concept and involves how they see themselves and present to the outside world. It must be respected,” the suit says.

Broward County schools’ guide for welcoming and accepting LGBTQ students is at odds with the state law, the suit says.

“By targeting only transgender girls, the law sends a message that they should be isolated instead of embraced and treated with suspicion instead of acceptance,” the parents argued in the suit.

Asked at a brief press conference Tuesday morning whether anyone at the school district knew about the case because of the lawsuit, Broward Schools Superintendent Peter Licata said, “I was unaware of any lawsuit at the time that I received the information, and we actually didn’t have the student’s name at the time so we just wanted to make sure we got through it. That’s part of what the investigation is.”

The lawsuit predates Licata’s appointment to the job. And the Broward school board was dismissed from the case as a defendant in February 2022, following mediation.

“That connection was not made whatsoever,” Licata added.

The latest ruling in the case came Nov. 16, when U.S. District Judge Roy K. Altman agreed the student and her parents could have more time - until Jan. 11, 2024 - to amend their pleadings.

They’d been dealt a blow with his Nov. 6 ruling dismissing the case. Altman agreed with Florida education officials that the student’s civil rights were not violated by application of the law.

Superintendent plans to change sports processes

As part of the investigation Monday, the school district reached out to the office of the Florida Commissioner of Education, Licata said. He said staffers at the office, but not the commissioner himself, advised the district to “be consistent and fair” and to address it in a “deliberate way.”

In an emailed statement, Cailey Myers, communications director for the state Department of Education, said: “Under Governor DeSantis, boys will never be allowed to play girls’ sports. It’s that simple.”

“As soon as the Department was notified that a biological male was playing on a girls’ team in Broward County, we instructed the district to take immediate action since this is a direct violation of Florida law,” she added. “It is completely unacceptable for the male student to have been allowed to play on a girls’ team, and we expect there will be serious consequences for those responsible.”

Read More: Florida Dept. of Ed responds to reassignment of Broward principal: ‘Serious consequences’

The Broward schools superintendent declined to say whether the specific student involved in this case could continue playing sports in the same way, but said the district will implement new processes to “make sure everyone is eligible for the sport they’re playing on all aspects — grade level, so forth and so on — that’s in accordance with state law as well as the [Florida High School Athletic Association].”

The Florida High School Athletic Association, the state group that manages high school sports, mandates students fill out a five-page form about their medical history, and medical and physical eligibility. The form asks students several times to state their assigned sex at birth.

Licata, however, didn’t say whether the paperwork was filed for this specific case, or how the school processed it.

He also didn’t say how the system would change moving forward.

“We’ll address that when we get to it,” he said.