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Lighter punishment recommended for teacher's transphobic Facebook posts

Seth Wenig
An administrative judge agreed that a teacher's Facebook posts were inappropriate, but he ruled that Duval schools did not establish that the posts constituted bullying or retaliation.

An administrative judge in Tallahassee only partially agreed with the suspension of a Sandalwood High School teacher who made transphobic and anti-LGBT posts on his public Facebook account.

The judge ruled this week that the Duval school district should shorten the teacher's unpaid suspension from five days to three.

The district issued the reprimand almost a year ago after a Times-Union investigation revealed that math teacher Thomas Caggiano had posted seven Facebook posts that the school board deemed to violate School Board policy. The Facebook posts that led to the suspension included sexual references, anti-transgender messages and a misogynist expletive.

But the judge had a slightly different opinion.

"The School Board has established that Mr. Caggiano's two posts and reposts fall within the definition of 'more severe acts of misconduct,'" the judge, Robert Telfer, wrote. "However, because the School Board did not establish that the posts constituted bullying or retaliation, the undersigned recommends a reduction in the proposed suspension to three days."

The judge did uphold the district's requirement that the teacher complete a course in Culture Diversity.

Caggiano told the judge he was not aware that his profile was public and viewable by students when he wrote the posts. The attorney representing Caggiano, Kelly Mathis, said he was disappointed in this week's ruling and plans to appeal.

"A teacher to post certain things on their private Facebook account seems to be protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution," Mathis said. "Apparently the administrative law judge did not see it that way."

The initial investigation into Caggiano's Facebook posts was prompted by his refusal to use a transgender student's chosen pronouns. In an email to the student he wrote, "I will NOT refer to you with female pronouns. If this is not acceptable for you change classes."

According to Duval County Schools policies, transgender students have the right to be called by the names and pronouns they request.

In the reprimand originally issued by Duval schools, the district wrote: "While you are certainly entitled to your First Amendment right to free speech, your actions are in direct contradiction to the District’s mission. ... As an educator you have a duty and/or a responsibility to maintain the respect of the community and your colleagues."

In response to this week's ruling, LGBTQ right advocacy organization Equality Florida said teachers should be held responsible if they aren't inclusive to all students.

"Teachers have a responsibility to create safe and welcoming learning environments for all students, and those who fail to do so should be held accountable," Brandon Wolf, representative for Equality Florida, said in a statement.

This is a breaking story. Check back for updates.