Waiting outside her son's school in the early weeks of the school year, Samantha was shocked out of the hectic monotony of waiting for her child to emerge from the swirl of kids in the pick-up area. Other Robinswood Middle School students were calling out facetious farewells using the name she gave her child at birth, when her child's gender was assigned as female.
"What did they call you?" asked Samantha as her son got in the car. (We have changed "Samantha's" name to protect her child's identity.)
"Nothing," said the sixth-grader, insisting that he could handle it on his own.
School can be cruel. At every age, there are bullies, and anti-bullying measures still have a long way to go.
But what shocked Samantha was that her son's classmates knew the name at all.
Samantha says that, just as she did at her son's elementary school, she went to the Robinswood administration before the year started to explain that her son identifies with a different gender than the one assigned at birth and thus goes by a different name.
There was never a problem at Catalina Elementary School, says Samantha. No other students knew her son was transgender – a term he doesn't use, preferring simply to call himself a boy – not even his friends or any of the teachers.
At Robinswood, Samantha claims, the school ignored her request that teachers and school officials refer to her son by his chosen name.
She says a teacher called her son by his deadname on the first day of school. ("Deadname" is the term for a transgender person's original name given at birth to match a specific gender assignment.) And when the boy asked to be called by his chosen name, the teacher refused. He was told by the teacher that he'd have to change it legally for that to happen.
Samantha says other students, upon hearing the unfamiliar name, began using it to taunt her son.
According to Samantha, the teacher continued to use the deadname for weeks. She only knew about it when she heard the students saying it in the pick-up area. Her son, she says, didn't want to bother her with it.
Samantha said she brought up the issue to Robinswood principal Nicole Jefferson, the same person she says she told about the name a week before school. But Jefferson refused to apologize or have the teacher apologize, according to Samantha; she says she was told that educators do not apologize to students. The principal said school officials use legal documents and names but, now that she'd been specifically notified, she'd make sure the teacher wouldn't do it again.
Samantha says she went to the Orange County School Board, who told her they'd investigate.
But the damage is done. Samantha's son intentionally withholds his gender identity journey from friends and classmates, but now the cat's out of the bag. In one instance, according to Samantha, Robinswood students tapped her son in the genital area to humiliate him.
Her son kept all of this to himself for weeks. When Samantha found out about the genital touching and brought it to the school administration, she says she was told that they couldn't do anything because they need to be immediately notified of any issues requiring disciplinary action.
"We feel discriminated against," she said, adding she is actively looking to move her son to another school. Samantha says she took her son out of school for a little over a week but, after being informed that her son could be charged with truancy, returned him to Robinswood.
She says her son has to see the same teacher who called him by his deadname every day.
Samantha did note that the school provided a separate bathroom for her son from day one, but claims they barred him from the boy's restroom. Her son used the bathroom in the guidance counselor's office.
She added the guidance counselor has been a great boon for her boy, and that other teachers have been kind and understanding. Another teacher also used her son's deadname on the first day of school while taking attendance but, after the boy asked the teacher not to, immediately stopped.
Samantha also noted that, after all of this, she feels a rift with her child's school that makes her feel uncomfortable to speak to them or ask for things. For example, her son wants to join the gym class. But when Samantha brought it up, she says the administration said they were unsure how to handle locker room space. Instead of starting what she felt would be another argument, she said she dropped it.
Her son still really wants to take gym.
Due to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, Orange County Public Schools says it cannot "cannot release or discuss any student information."
The district did provide a form called "Best Practices," a guide for interacting with different kinds of students provided by LGBTQIA advocacy group Equality Florida.
"The School Board of Orange County, Florida, does not discriminate in admission or access to, or treatment or employment in its programs and activities, on the basis of race, color, religion, age, sex, national origin, marital status, disability, genetic information, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, or any other reason prohibited by law," reads a statement on the form.
The "Best Practices" form says Orange County students and faculty should "feel empowered" to be about open gender expression, identity and sexual orientation. A student's clothing, pronouns and name, according to the form, are permitted to be "consistent with their gender identity."
The form also says students are to be granted access to bathrooms and locker rooms in keeping with their gender identity, and lists contact numbers for county LGBTQ Student and Gay-Straight Alliance support faculty, as well as a number for a 24-hour hotline.
"If a staff member is not following the direction in this document, they can be referred to their principal or manager who may escalate the case to the Office of Professional Standards who would conduct an internal investigation," OCPS said in a statement to Orlando Weekly.
That sounds great on paper, but paper's not much protection from a bully, whether they're a fellow student or a teacher.
– This story appears in the Jan. 22, 2020, print issue of Orlando Weekly. Stay on top of Central Florida news and views with our weekly Headlines newsletter.