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Friday, July 12, 2024 | Back issues
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Mom of transgender girl athlete says Florida’s investigation has destroyed her daughter’s life

The girl now attends school online.

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — A Florida public school employee who faces firing because she allowed her transgender daughter to play girls high school volleyball assailed those who outed her child, saying Tuesday that the ensuing investigation destroyed the girl's life.

Jessica Norton said her daughter was thriving at Monarch High School in suburban Fort Lauderdale before an anonymous tipster notified a Broward County school board member in November that the 16-year-old was playing on the girls varsity volleyball team in apparent violation of state law. The 2021 Fairness in Women’s Sports Act bars students who were born male from participating in girls sports.

That November tip launched a school district investigation that has led to Norton facing the possible loss of her job as a computer information specialist at Monarch because she allowed her daughter to play. Investigators also said she didn't, as part of her job, change the child's gender on school records back to “male” from “female,” as required by district policy.

Norton told the school board Tuesday that her daughter had been elected freshman and sophomore class president, was selected the student body's director of philanthropy and was a homecoming princess. That all ended when the investigation began and the girl left Monarch.

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“They destroyed her high school career and her lifelong memories,” Norton said. “I saw the light in my daughter’s eyes gleam with future plans of organizing and attending prom, participating in and leading senior class traditions, speaking at graduation and going off to college with the confidence and joy that any student like her would after a successful and encouraging high school experience. And 203 days ago, I watched as that life was extinguished."

The girl now attends school online.

None of the board's nine members responded to Norton, a seven-year district employee who received stellar evaluations before November.

Treatment of transgender children has been a hot-button issue across the country over the last few years. Florida is among at least 25 states that adopted bans on gender-affirming care for minors and one of at least 24 states that’s adopted a law banning transgender women and girls from certain women’s and girls sports.

The board had been scheduled to vote Tuesday on Superintendent Howard Hepburn's recommendation that Norton be fired, but that decision has been delayed at least a month. A district committee recommended that Norton receive a 10-day suspension, but Hepburn overrode it. He has not said why. The board could fire Norton, suspend her or do nothing.

Monarch Principal James Cecil and three other administrators were temporarily reassigned when the investigation began, but were reinstated after student protests. The state's athletic commission fined the school $16,500.

Broward is one of Florida's most politically liberal counties, with twice as many Democrats as Republicans, and has a large LGBTQ+ community. The countywide school district is the nation's fifth largest, with almost 255,000 students at 327 schools.

According to the district investigative report, board member Daniel Foganholi contacted the district's police department after he received the tip. Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis appointed Foganholi last year after the elected board member was found ineligible to serve.

Since 2021, DeSantis has signed the Fairness in Women's Sports Act and other measures targeting the transgender community. The Nortons are plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit trying to block the act.

Foganholi did not respond to emails last week and on Monday seeking comment.

Norton’s child began taking puberty blockers at age 11 and takes estrogen but has not had gender-affirming surgery. Such procedures are rarely done on minors.

Her parents say she often sat on the bench for Monarch’s volleyball team and has no athletic advantages from being born male. When investigators asked Cecil to describe the child, he said, “She looks like a girl to me. ... she seems very small, very skinny.”

Responding to Foganholi's complaint, Broward schools assigned two officers to investigate. The state education department also appointed an investigator.

They pulled school records for Norton's daughter and locked them in a vault. They interviewed officials at Monarch and at the daughter's middle and elementary schools, seeking to find out who knew the girl was transgender and when and how her records were changed. They also interviewed Norton and three Monarch volleyball players.

Norton, who has two older children, told them she enrolled her youngest child in kindergarten as a boy in 2013, four years before she began working for the district. The child transitioned to a girl in first grade. She said other parents and children knew, so it has never been a complete secret.

She said when her child was in second grade, she asked a school employee to change the child's gender on her school records. She said then-Superintendent Robert Runcie told her that was the procedure. Runcie left the district in 2021 after an unrelated controversy and was not contacted.

But the district says such changes are only allowed if the parent first gets the child's birth certificate amended. The birth certificate wasn't amended until 2021 after Norton started working with the district. The district says after learning about its policy, Norton should have requested in 2017 that her child's gender be changed back to male on her records.

Norton told investigators she didn't because the amended records are accurate — her child is a girl.

Norton knew the new state law barred transgender girls from playing girls sports when her daughter entered high school in 2022. The detectives asked why she then let her daughter play volleyball and why she marked “female” on a permission form that asked the child's “sex at birth.”

“Because she’s my child and she wanted to play,” Norton told them. Norton coached the junior varsity volleyball team.

When investigators interviewed the Monarch volleyball players, they said the team did not change clothes or shower together, so they were never disrobed with Norton's daughter. All three said they knew or suspected Norton's daughter is transgender, but it didn't bother them that she was on the team. The Knights went 13-7 last season.

“I didn’t really have a problem with it because I didn’t think she was a threat or anything to anyone else,” one girl told investigators.

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By TERRY SPENCER Associated Press

Categories / Civil Rights, Education, Politics, Regional, Sports

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