Florida teacher who sparked inclusion training continued posting homophobic memes
Weeks before the start of this school year, Cesar — a sophomore at Sandalwood High School — anxiously emailed all of her new teachers.
The 15-year-old, whose full name we aren’t using to protect her identity, is transgender. She wrote her incoming teachers to let them know her chosen name and pronouns, since the class roster would say something else.
But her math teacher, Thomas Caggiano, wasn’t having it. He refused to honor Cesar’s pronouns, telling her if she didn’t like it, to switch classes — which is exactly what she did.
Outside of school, his distaste for those who identify as transgender and others in the LGBTQ community isn’t a secret, either. To this day, he publicly shares degrading memes on his personal Facebook page.
Now, as the school year wraps up, he’s still teaching. Duval County Public Schools launched an inquiry into Caggiano shortly after the Times-Union shared some of his transphobic, xenophobic and racist public social media posts.
On Aug. 5, Cesar typed out the letter to each of her new teachers. It was about two weeks before school was set to begin — plenty of lead time, she thought.
“I will be in your class during the 2019-2020 school year, and I would like to let you know that I am a Male-to-Female Transgender student,” Cesar wrote. “I am sending this email before the actual school year starts so that there is plenty of time to change it on the roll before then if possible.”
She called sending the email “nerve wracking,” but said the response from her teachers was positive — well, most of her teachers.
On Aug. 16, Thomas Caggiano, one of the school’s 23 math teachers, responded.
“I will NOT refer to you with female pronouns,” Caggiano responded in an email the Times-Union obtained. “If this is not acceptable for you, change classes. I will call you by any reasonable name you like, but the pronouns are not a negotiable thing for me.”
Cesar’s heart sank.
“The moment I opened Mr. Caggiano's email turned my whole mood around into anxiousness,” she said. “When I read his email, I was surprised at the sheer disrespect from him.”
Cindy Watson, the CEO of JASMYN — a local nonprofit that provides support for LGBTQ youth — said a situation like this can be traumatic for a young trans person.
“It’s very challenging,” Watson said. “Trans students and students who are generally diverse continue to have real challenges having that part of their lives understood and respected across the system. This is not an anomaly for one county.”
Besides being traumatic, Caggiano’s denial to use a student’s desired pronouns also defy Duval County Public School policy.
“Depending on the plan that is developed, a transgender student should be addressed by a name and gender pronoun corresponding to their consistently-asserted gender identity,” the district’s LGBTQ Support Guide said. “School staff/officials with a legitimate educational interest in this information should be informed of a transgender student’s affirmed name and gender pronoun.”
After Cesar received Caggiano’s response refusing to abide by her pronouns, she sent a request to her guidance counselor requesting a schedule change, which was honored. Since then, Cesar reports relations with her teachers are going smoothly.
Next, she sent screenshots of her email exchange with Caggiano to Principal Saryn Hatcher, who promised he would “handle it.”
“I received another email from [Hatcher] saying that he handled the situation,” Cesar said. “But I am not sure how.”
Principal Hatcher told the Times-Union that when the incident occurred, he told Cesar she’d be supported and that he met with Caggiano one-on-one.
“He was remorseful and apologized after he found out the district’s position on this subject,” Hatcher said. “He also stated he would now use whatever name or pronoun the child wished in the future.”
But during the same time-frame Caggiano was apologizing to his principal and he and his colleagues were receiving inclusion training, the teacher was sharing transphobic posts on Facebook.
The Times-Union shared screenshots and quotes from Caggiano’s Facebook page with the school district this week when seeking comment for this story.
“We were not aware of these posts,” Duval County Public Schools spokesman Tracy Pierce said. “We will always strive to meet high standards and high expectations, and if any member of the community has evidence of behavior that may fall short of those standards, the district will want to receive it.”
Cesar tells the Times-Union she has not heard from Caggiano since the incident, nor did he apologize to her directly.
Despite multiple attempts, including emails to his school district account, calls and Facebook messages, Caggiano did not respond to the Times-Union for comment.
Hatcher said the school’s entire staff took part in “All-In” inclusivity training in August that he requested as a result of Caggiano refusing to respect Cesar’s pronouns.
“As principal, I am committed to creating an inclusive school culture, and this incident was not consistent with our expectations,” Hatcher said. “The incident led to productive personal discussions not only with the teacher, but broader conversations that took place with additional stakeholders about inclusion, kindness and empathy.”
Duval Schools spokeswoman Sonya Duke-Bolden confirmed that the initial incident was referred to the district’s Office of Equity and Inclusion/Professional Standards and Caggiano was counseled by Hatcher based on information the office provided on LGBTQ inclusion. From there, no further action was taken, Duke-Bolden said.
Still, just days after Caggiano told Cesar he wouldn’t use her pronouns, he wrote “Love it!” and linked to a blog post about a protest against transgender women using women’s restrooms in schools. “About time people stood up to this insanity.”
About a month later, in September, the math teacher posted a blog post about a transgender woman who was fired from her barista job after telling a conservative activist they weren’t welcome.
“Shows how intolerant these people can be,” Caggiano wrote. “If you don't cater/pander to them they viciously attack on all levels.”
Now, in light of the Times-Union making the district aware of Caggiano’s posts, the district said it will conduct a new inquiry on Caggiano.
“Even though the person appearing to make the posts does not immediately identify himself as a teacher or make reference to the district, our Office of Equity and Inclusion and Professional Standards is going to conduct an inquiry to determine if the posts merit further action either under district policy or the Principles of Professional Conduct for the Education Profession in Florida,” Pierce said.
A note from the Office of Equity and Inclusion and Professional Standards added that an inquiry “could take some time, as the office cannot compel anyone to meet or speak with us.”
The office added that Caggiano did not directly reference a student or direct his posts at a student in his posts, nor does he identify himself as a Duval County Public Schools teacher.
“While this teacher’s disturbing social media posts took place on his own time, they still send a harmful message that certain students are not welcome at school or in his classroom,” said Scott McCoy, interim deputy legal director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s LGBTQ Rights & Special Litigation project. “This can have a negative impact on school climate and the well-being of individual students.”
The Times-Union verified Caggiano’s account using multiple methods including location data, mentions and tagged photos, as well as by matching information to his school district personnel file and county court records. Students also identified the Facebook page as Caggiano’s.
All of the posts reviewed by the Times-Union were public for any one — or any student — to see.
Today, Caggiano remains teaching and according to the district, there’s no change to his employment status for next school year.
The math teacher, 61, has been with Duval County Public Schools since 1995. Records show that as of 2016, he was making about $70,500 annually. The highest paid Duval County Public Schools teacher position this school year is roughly $72,000, records show.
He’s a Navy veteran who fought in the Persian Gulf War and a past recipient of Gov. Rick Scott’s Shine Award for his service in the military and as a teacher.
On Facebook, Caggiano shared a photo of his expired Navy ID card.
The teacher’s personnel records show mostly satisfactory reviews, save for a ding in 2007 for not showing “sensitivity to student needs.” The report did not go into detail.
Despite inclusion training, Caggiano’s personal views on people who identify as transgender, gender fluid and the LGBTQ community in general appear unchanged based on recent social media posts.
In multiple public Facebook posts from the school year, some published as recently as April and May, Caggiano shared insensitive memes mocking transgender figures — including Caitlyn Jenner as well as people who identify as gender non-binary and gay.
“If I had a dollar for every gender there is, I’d have two dollars and a bunch of counterfeits,” one post said.
Another read, “Why is it that when archaeologists find human remains they are either male or female, not ever any of the 700 other genders.”
“We live in a society where homosexuals lecture us on morals, transvestites [sic] lecture us on human biology, baby killers lecture us on human rights and socialists lecture us on economics!” another post Caggiano shared said.
One post depicted a figure wearing a pink skirt with long blonde hair standing in front of a urinal next to a man with the caption, “that moment you realize maybe you shouldn’t vote for a democrat.”
An additional post urged followers to vote Republican in order to “put an end to the madness.” The “madness” it was referring to was gender neutral bathrooms, with the accompanying text, “if this girl [a photo of a college-aged woman] sees a penis at a party it’s a crime. But if this girl [a photo of an elementary school-aged young girl] sees a penis in the woman’s bathroom, it’s tolerance.”
Many of the posts shared by Caggiano are graphic or explicit. Some are shown as “covered” by Facebook, a feature the social platform uses to hide photos that are violent or graphic in nature. Others have been flagged by Facebook as inaccurate.
Some of his posts share xenophobic and racist remarks, including a doctored photo of Michele Obama with a beard and a separate meme asking why “muslims should not be held collectively responsible for the violence we witness today.” In a recent post from late-April, Caggiano refers to Chinese food as “corona food” and “covid food.”
A politically charged meme he shared titled “April 15 Tax Reminder,” said “don’t forget to pay your taxes. 21 million illegal aliens are depending on you! Mochas’ Gracias [sic].”
All of Caggiano’s Facebook posts referenced and reviewed by the Times-Union in this story were posted this school year, between Aug. 2019 — the same week he apologized to the school’s principal for his remarks — through the week of publication, the week before school lets out for summer vacation.
Duval County Public Schools does not have a social media policy for its faculty and staff, Duke-Bolden confirmed.
“There is no specific policy,” Duke-Bolden said. “However, we try to remind staff that the code of professional conduct for educators and any other relevant professional conduct policies may apply in their personal use of social media. As educators, certain behavior in any aspect of our lives can have professional consequences.”
The district declined to comment on whether Caggiano's posts violated any professional conduct policies or if there would be any repercussions.
“We will have to wait until the conclusion of the inquiry to address those questions,” Pierce said.
A note from the district’s Office of Equity and Inclusion and Professional Standards said the office doesn’t make decisions regarding “what level of discipline (if any) should be administered” or future employment with the district. It added that decision would be up to the district’s human resources department.
When Cesar’s negative email exchange with Caggiano started garnering attention on social media, former Duval County Public Schools student Ryan Stalvey hopped into the conversation.
“Duval puts blinders on when it comes to transphobia, good luck,” he tweeted. “They never did sh*t for me until my last day of school.”
Stalvey, who is transgender, attended Paxon School for Advanced Studies before dropping out his senior year. He says he quit school because of how he was treated as a trans student.
“When I read about [Cesar’s] situation, I felt angry for the first time in a while,” Stalvey told the Times-Union. “I’m not sure what else to say except I could feel the slap in the face he gave her. It’s a humiliating form of disrespect and it leaves you feeling absolutely hopeless after what feels like pointless years of work to become who you are.”
Ian Siljestrom, the Safe and Healthy Schools Associate Director for Equality Florida, told the Times-Union that using a student’s affirmed name can have positive impacts on not only a student’s mental health, but their grades.
“Good educators work hard to ensure students have a safe environment to learn, succeed and graduate,” Siljestrom said. “For many LGBTQ students this includes the use of their affirmed name and pronouns. Respecting a student's affirmed name and pronouns can have a positive impact on attendance, academic performance, mental health, and their sense of belonging.”
This month, Duval Schools rolled out a new policy, largely geared toward helping transgender students. A waiver lets students request their online display name — seen by classmates and teachers when participating in distance learning because of the coronavirus pandemic — appear as their affirmed name instead of their legal birth name. The school district said the name request would carry over to in-person class rosters.
“As you are aware, we have strong policies for inclusion and non-discrimination,” Pierce said. “We believe education should occur in an atmosphere where differences are understood and appreciated and where all are treated fairly and with respect — free from discrimination, harassment and threats of violence or abuse.”
“Regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression, every student should feel safe in every one of our classrooms every day,” Pierce added. “These are rights that are protected by our School Board policies and rights that affirm our commitment to mental health and academic wellness.”
According to American Educator, a quarterly journal that publishes educational research, 25 percent of reported incidents reported by educators in 2018 had to do with sexual orientation or gender identity.
“The overwhelming majority of incidents in this category targeted people who identify outside of cisgender or heterosexual identities,” the report said. “This form of harassment and bias starts in elementary school and ratchets up in middle and high school.”
But McCoy at the SPLC said it’s more disturbing when educators — who are in a position of power over students — are the perpetrators.
“Schools should be safe and welcoming places for all students,” McCoy said. “It is critical that school and district leaders affirm students’ right to attend school without fear.”
According to a report by the SPLC’s Teaching Tolerance initiative, which focused on hate at school, in one month of recorded hate incidents, educators and school personnel were the ones behaving poorly nearly one-quarter of the time.
The report references multiple instances where educators posted racist, transphobic and derogatory musings on social media.
“Too many educators, coaches and adults in our schools do not see all students as full human beings worthy of equitable treatment,” the report said. “It's sad enough to witness how this failure translates into social media posts and abuses of power … The effects of this attitude on teaching practices, school climate and district policies may be quieter, but it's equally detrimental to our nation's students.”
Cesar knows that she’s not the only one who has been in a situation like this.
“I believe all schools in Duval County tend to have transphobic policies,” she said, while noting that she hasn’t observed all schools throughout the county. “I believe transphobia and transphobic policies could possibly be an issue [at many schools].”
To explain her reasoning, Cesar pointed to Sandalwood’s school grade: An ‘A’ for the last three years.
“Sandalwood is known as an ‘A’ school, or in other words, the ‘best of the best,’” she said. “If one of the best schools in Duval County is exhibiting this transphobic behavior, then how are other schools within Duval County treating their Transgender students?”
If you identify as part of the LGBTQ community or know someone who does and have questions, here are some resources:
JASMYN supports and empowers LGBTQ young people by creating safe space, providing health and wholeness services and offering youth development opportunities, while bringing people and resources together to promote equality and human rights. For more information, visit www.JASMYN.org or call (904) 389-3857.
The Trevor Project is a national nonprofit focused on suicide prevention for LGBTQ youth. A national 24-hour, toll free confidential suicide hotline for LGBTQ youth is available by calling 1-866-488-7386. For more information, visit www.thetrevorproject.org.
This story originally published to jacksonville.com, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the USA TODAY Network - Florida.