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Lawsuit claims Clay County Schools withheld information about child’s well-being before student attempted suicide

Wendell and Maria Perez said the district violated their parental rights by not telling them about the meetings with their daughter until after her suicide attempts.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Parents are suing Clay County District Schools after they said their daughter attempted suicide two days in a row following meetings with a counselor about 'gender identity confusion'.

The 12-year-old's parents said school administrators didn't tell them about the meetings.

"We met with the principal, the assistant principal and the police officer, and the counselor who informed us that our 12-year old-daughter, this is an elementary-schooler, had tried to commit suicide at school by hanging herself twice in two days," Wendell Perez said.

Wendell Perez said on Jan. 5, 2022, the school counselor called him and his wife and told them to come to the school immediately. 

"The school counselor alleged that it [suicide attempts] was because of a gender identity issue, and that they knew we as parents would not be in agreement because of our Catholic Christian beliefs. My daughter never exhibited any signs of gender confusion or questioning her biological sex," he said.

"I asked why my daughter had tried to commit suicide. She [the counselor] said because of her identity issues. I asked what those were and she said, 'well, you know, she wants to be called this, and she wants these pronouns,' and she said, 'because she knows that you guys are not going to accept her because of your religious beliefs,'" Maria Perez said. 

The Perezes said the counselor didn't tell them about the meetings with their daughter about gender identity confusion until after the suicide attempts. They said the meetings had been going on for a few months. 

Wendell Perez said administrators told them confidentiality issues prevented them from telling the Perezes about the meetings.

"The school counselor went so far as to encourage and call our daughter by a fictitious male name and male pronouns in front of the other students, causing a pattern of bullying against our daughter," Wendell Perez said.

Their daughter was taken to the hospital and admitted to the behavioral health unit where she stayed until Jan. 12.

The Perezes have filed a lawsuit with The Child & Parental Rights Campaign. Vernadette Broyles, the Campaign's president, represents them.

"This lawsuit is about protecting the rights of parents to raise their children in accordance with their beliefs, with their religious beliefs and their understanding of science and biology without the interference of the state," Broyles said.

Clay County District Schools sent First Coast News the following statement in response to the federal lawsuit. 

"Clay County District Schools has not been served with any legal process and cannot comment on the content of any pleading filed with the court. The district has performed a thorough and complete investigation into this matter as it was presented to us and has determined that the allegations made by this out-of-state organization are completely false, fabricated, and appear to be intended solely for the purpose of inciting the public. All employees of the district consistently work to ensure that the best interests of all students are served. The district will have no further comment on this matter."

Broyles said the lawsuit is currently being served to the district. 

“It is adding insult to injury to assert that these allegations are fabricated when, in fact, they come directly, directly from the statements that were made by school officials to these two parents. And then in addition to the fruit of the poisonous tree of their behavior, with their child ending up in a psych ward for a week, whereas previous to all of this, she was a perfectly healthy little girl," Broyles said.

When First Coast News asked what would motivate school administrators to allege the claims were fabricated, here's how Broyles responded.

“It's what schools districts do when they realize that they have liabilities, to deny it," she said.

“I am extremely disappointed with that [the district's statement], extremely disappointed because they have been very impersonal of caring and dismissive," Wendell Perez said. "Clay County, they brag about having an excellent school district. Prove it. They have decided to take an adversarial mode and an extremely arrogant attitude against us, but behold, because pride comes before the fall, we are serious on this. We are vigilant. We are militant, and we are decisive," he said.

LGBT civil rights attorney and advocate, Carrington Mead, said it is important for children to have an adult other than their parents that they trust and they can talk to.

"As a parent myself, I have always, I have always said for years, and I tell people all the time, that there is nothing wrong with a child having as many responsible adults in their lives as possible," Mead said. 

"Sometimes, children just don't feel comfortable talking about things with their parents, for whatever reason, not because it's something that parent has done, but that's just because they're a parent, you know, kids don't like to disappoint their parents or tell them things that their parents may not like to hear," Mead said.

As far as parents' rights, Mead said it depends on the situation.

“Parents have a right to, you know, exercise and have the freedom to exercise decision making as it concerns the better interests of their children. When that interest contravenes their children's better interests, the state has a right to insert itself and come in," Mead said.

Mead said he hopes the lawsuit won't further harm the Perez's daughter.

"What is obvious here, it doesn't seem to be anybody is disagreeing with the fact that this child is struggling and is in crisis, and suing the school board isn't going to solve that problem. And while they're doing that, their child could be in harm's way," Mead said.

The lawsuit's focus is also the focus of a bill in the Florida House Judiciary Committee. House Bill 1557 wouldn't let districts prohibit notifying parents about information concerning a student's mental, emotional, or physical well-being. The bill wouldn't stop a district, however, from adopting procedures that would allow personnel to withhold the information from a parent if the personnel thought it would result in abuse, abandonment or neglect of the student.  

The bill also tells districts to "not encourage classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity" in primary grade levels or when, the bill says it's in "a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students." 

"People not wanting to talk about it doesn't mean it doesn't exist. It just brings further shame and difficulty for children who are still trying to process this," Mead said.

The bill has received a lot of pushback from gay rights groups, who call it the "Don't Say Gay" bill.

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