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Teacher's refusal to supervise transgender student in locker room sparks debate

Issue arises surrounding transgender student at Florida middle school (WPEC)

PORT RICHEY, Fla. (WPEC) — Questions about religious freedom and privacy have been raised after a Florida teacher refused to supervise a boys' locker room because a transgender student was using it.

“They came down and informed me that there was a girl identifying as a guy that was going to be in the boys locker room,” said Robert Oppedisano, a physical education teacher in the Pasco County School District.

Oppedisano has held the job for 24 years, the past 16 at Chasco Middle School. There, Oppedisano said he took a stand for two reasons.

“One was I’m a Christian,” he said. “Two is it’s a female— it’s, you know, a young female, and she needed her privacy.”

And Oppedisano said the boys in his class needed their privacy too.

The veteran teacher said, beyond being a Christian, he feels no man should be supervising students that are anatomically women in a locker room.

A Pasco School District spokeswoman responding to written questions said in essence, the matter is much ado about nothing.

She said middle school students do not completely undress or shower at school, and that no one was ever forced to compromise their beliefs.

“He was not reprimanded yet because we got involved,” said Mat Staver, founder of the Liberty Counsel, an organization specializing in religious liberty issues.

When the locker room situation blew up, Oppedisano reached out to Liberty Counsel and the organization took up his fight.

Staver’s group provided CBS12 News with an email chain from Pasco School District staffers.

One note read, “Shall we send him home on administrative leave after today until we can get out and talk to him?”

A later email seemed to support placing Oppedisano on leave, reading, “I think it sends a clear message that we will not tolerate his behavior.”

Schools spokeswoman Linda Cobbe said the emails only show discipline was considered. The idea of disciplining Oppedisano was ultimately rejected, and Cobbe said the Liberty Counsel had nothing to do with that decision.

“Well, obviously you have to address everyone with love, no matter what the situation is,” Staver said. “But one of the things you can’t do in this process is force the rest of the school— students, faculty, staff— to participate in one person’s issues they may be going through and struggling with.”

The Pasco County School District declined requests for an on-camera interview.

When asked about the district’s policy regarding transgender students and locker rooms, Cobbe responded, “There is no policy specific to gender and locker rooms. The School Board’s Non-Discrimination, Anti-Harassment, and Anti-Bullying policies include a list of legally protected classes that include sex/gender ”

Cobbe said the policy is consistent with protections under state law and state education rules, and is consistent with at least four court rulings.

Joan Hepsworth, a lesbian owner of a bookstore in Pasco County, said she had heard of the dust-up over the locker room supervision.

“To put the teacher in this position just seems outrageous to me,” Hepsworth said. “I’m glad he stood up against it.”

Maybe not the comment one would expect from someone like Hepsworth, who helped sponsor the recent first-ever Pasco gay pride celebration.

But while Hepsworth commended the teacher for taking a stand, she said she also knows the student in question is going through gender dysphoria, the recognized condition where someone feels distress over gender identity.

“They’re already going through not feeling part of the community, feeling different from all of the other kid,” she said. “I think first and foremost should be the safety of the students, all of them.”

Hepsworth said it’s up to the school district and community at large to find a way to respect and accommodate everyone.

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