Florida teachers navigate first year under ‘Don’t Say Gay’ law

Michael Woods, a special education teacher at a high school in Palm Beach County, Florida, said he used to have a library in his classroom with shelves of dozens of books that students could take home and read for fun.

The library included the “Twilight” and “Harry Potter” series, as well as a book called “Meg,” which is a shark thriller.

But when school started this week, the classroom library was empty. The books now sit in the school closet, partly because of new laws that limit classroom instruction.

One of the measures, the Parental Rights in Education Act — or what critics have called the “don’t say gay” law — prohibits teaching about sexual orientation and gender identity “in kindergarten through 3rd grade or in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students according to state standards.” Another new law restricts instruction on African American history.

As a result, Woods said, the Palm Beach County School District sent out a checklist in May for teachers to use to review all the books in their classrooms.

Woods said he didn’t have time to go through every book with a checklist, so he decided to take them all.

“I haven’t had any controversial books, but we keep hearing, ‘Well, if something happens, you can lose your license,'” he said, referring to his state educator’s license. “So they’ll stay in the closet and not help anyone.”

Advocates of the Parental Education Rights Act say it is limited to classroom instruction in kindergarten through third grade, but critics say the part of the law that prohibits instruction that is “not age or developmentally appropriate” opens teachers in any classroom to lawsuits parents.

The law does not provide examples of what is age or developmentally appropriate and does not describe what a violation of the law would look like. As a result, school districts’ interpretations of how best to implement the law vary widely.

In Palm Beach County, Woods said, teachers received little guidance on how to comply with the law, and the instructions they were given were vague. For example, Woods said, teachers were told on the second day of school that they would have to fill out a form and send it home to students’ parents if students requested to use names other than their official names.

In an emailed statement, a spokesperson for the Palm Beach County School District said the Florida Department of Education provided information about the Parental Rights Act on a resource page.

“The district is in compliance with the state’s parental rights measure,” the spokesperson said. “Information about the student’s desired name is only one component of the form that parents must fill out. As part of parental rights legislation, all parents and guardians must give consent for health services on our campuses. Each student, whether returning or new to the district, must submit a student application form. In addition to health information, parents and guardians are asked to provide their current contact information, their child’s preferred name, and more.”

Questions about the form were met with “mixed responses,” Woods said. Teachers have been instructed to use the form whenever students request their names be changed, but teachers are not required to use the form if students request the use of nicknames but do not request their pronouns be changed, he said.

Woods said it’s only a few days into the school year, but he’s already worried about the moment a student asks to use a different name but doesn’t want the form sent home.

“I’m a queer man. I didn’t come out until I was 31 because of fear,” he said. “Can you imagine how much anxiety or anguish or how devastated she would be if she basically betrayed the child? Basically, the state is asking me to betray the child.”

About 500 miles away, in the northern part of the country, Bay District Schools, based in Panama City, provided employees with a thorough training video that Natalie Williams, the district’s communications specialist, said in an email is part of an eight-part annual update. state and federal laws.

In a video Williams shared with NBC News, Heather Hudson, the district attorney, walks employees through situations that could raise questions under the Parental Rights in Education Act.

For example, if a high school volleyball coach sees a female athlete walking down the hall holding hands with her girlfriend, and the student says, “Hey coach, have you met my new girlfriend?” and continues walking down the hall, a coach doesn’t have to call an athlete’s parents to tell them their kid is in a same-sex relationship, “just like I wouldn’t call to tell them she dated Billy or John. ,” Hudson said.

If students do disclose that they are struggling with their sexuality, Hudson said in the video, a teacher should only notify parents “if there is a change in student services or monitoring related to the student’s mental, emotional or physical health or well-being. – the ability and capacity of the school to provide the student with a safe and stimulating learning environment,” as stated in the Parental Rights Act.

So if students tell school counselors they want to use different pronouns or have access to different restrooms or locker rooms, Hudson said in the video, “then we get into the realm of monitoring and services, and your school administrators need to be involved in the conversation and probably we need to talk to the family.”

Hudson said staff members are not required to disclose information to parents if they have a “reasonable belief based on facts” that a parent’s warning would lead to abuse, abandonment or neglect, but the decision to withhold such information would have to be approved. by the principal, which is documented in the student’s school records and is reviewed every year.

It’s unclear whether state education officials would agree with all of Hudson’s guidelines, even though he cites the exact language of the bill. At a state board of education meeting Wednesday, board member Ryan Petty objected to a sentence in the Hillsborough County Public Schools LGBTQ resource guide that says, “With a limited exception involving immediate fear of physical harm, it is never appropriate to disclose a student’s sexual orientation to parents ,” according to the Florida Press Office.

Petty’s objection prompted Florida Education Commissioner Manny Diaz Jr. directed his staff on Wednesday to order all school districts to take documents of LGBTQ support for the state Board of Education to review, the News Service of Florida reported.

Jon Harris Maurer, director of public policy for Equality Florida, a statewide LGBTQ advocacy group, said the removal of LGBTQ resources, stickers and posters from Florida schools to comply with parental rights laws is “part of a larger agenda of censorship” coming from Governor Ron. DeSantis and the legislature impacting how LGBTQ youth can come out in schools.

“Because this law is so vague, we’re seeing it actually being implemented in the form of a lot of censorship and just silencing,” Maurer said. “Teachers and school districts don’t know where the lines are. So the law has a really scary effect when they completely withdraw.”

DeSantis did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the new law or claims it is part of a “censorship agenda.” When he signed the bill on March 28, he said it would ensure “that parents can send their children to school to get an education, not an indoctrination.”

Some districts have already removed content from their websites and books from their libraries.

In July, Duval County Public Schools removed a 12-minute anti-bullying video that taught middle and high school students how to support LGBTQ peers, Jacksonville Today reported. Some teachers were also ordered to remove rainbow Safe Space stickers and posters depicting the LGBTQ alliance from their walls and doors before the first day of school Monday, The Florida Times-Union reported.

Duval County Public Schools did not respond to a request for comment. District spokeswoman Tracy Pierce told The Times-Union that the district “is in the process of redesigning the ‘All for Safe Schools’ program.”

“The purpose of the redesign is to send a clear message to all students that the support available through the program is open to them and not limited to any specific student population,” Pierce said.

Several other districts implemented changes before the Parental Rights in Education Act went into effect on July 1.

In February, Collier County Public Schools, a district that includes part of Naples, began adding parent notices to more than 100 books, many of which touch on issues related to race or the LGBTQ community.

In July, Broward County Public Schools removed LGBTQ books from their shelves and sent boxes of them to the Stonewall National Museum and Archives in Fort Lauderdale, which is dedicated to preserving LGBTQ history, the Sun Sentinel reported. The district said the books were donated to free up office space ahead of a district reorganization.

“We know that these types of messages are telling LGBTQ youth that there is something inherently wrong with LGBTQ people and that these LGBTQ youth need to stay hidden,” Maurer said.

Woods said the first week of school, which started Monday, has already been incredibly difficult.

“I was extremely overwhelmed as a gay man who is now openly out because I have to be an advocate,” he said. “People know I’m a union leader and they know I’m gay. They come to me with questions to answer, like ‘What are we doing?’ And that frustrates me because I don’t have the answers.”

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