Politics

Florida teachers navigate their first year under the ‘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 classroom library with shelves of dozens of books that students could take home and read for fun. 

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

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

One of the measures, the Parental Rights in Education law — or what critics have called the “Don’t Say Gay” law — bans instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity “in kindergarten through grade 3 or in a manner that is not age appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards.” Another new law restricts instruction about African American history.

Michael Woods is a special education teacher in Palm Beach County, Florida.
Michael Woods is a special education teacher in Palm Beach County, Fla. Courtesy Michael Woods

As a result, Woods said, the School District of Palm Beach County sent out a checklist in May that teachers have to use to review all of the books in their classroom libraries.

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

“I didn’t have any controversial books, but what we keep hearing repeatedly is: ‘Well, if something happens, you could lose your license,’” he said, referring to a state educator’s license. “So they will remain in a closet, not helping anyone.”

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

The law doesn’t give examples of what is age or developmentally appropriate, and it doesn’t outline what breaking the law would look like. As a result, school districts’ interpretations of how to best implement the law vary widely. 

In Palm Beach County, Woods said, teachers have received little guidance about how to abide by the law, and the guidance they have gotten has been unclear. For example, Woods said, teachers were told on the second day of school that they will have to fill out and send a form home to students’ parents if the students ask to use names that are different from their legal names. 

In an emailed statement, a spokesperson for the School District of Palm Beach County said the Florida Department of Education has provided information about the parental rights bill on a resource page.

“The District is in compliance with the State’s Parental Rights measure,” the spokesperson said. “Information regarding a student’s preferred name is just one component of a form that parents are asked to complete. As part of the Parental Rights legislation, all parents and guardians must provide consent for health related services on our campuses. Every student, whether returning or new to the District, must submit a Student Registration 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 have been met with “mixed answers,” Woods said. Teachers were told to use the form any time students ask to change their names, but teachers don’t have to use the form if students ask to use nicknames but don’t ask to change their pronouns, he said. 

Woods said they’re 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 to be sent home.

“I’m a queer man. I did not come out until I was 31 because of the fear,” he said. “Can you imagine how much angst or how much anxiety or how devastated I would be if I essentially outed a child? I’m essentially being asked by the state to out a child.”

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

In the video, which Williams shared with NBC News, Heather Hudson, an attorney for the district, walks employees through situations that might raise questions under the Parental Rights in Education law. 

For example, if a middle 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 carries on walking down the hall, the coach doesn’t have to call the athlete’s parents to tell them their child is in a same-sex relationship, “just as I wouldn’t call to tell them that she was dating Billy or John,” Hudson said.

If students disclose that they are struggling with their sexuality, Hudson said in the video, a teacher would have to inform parents only “if there is a change in the student’s services or monitoring related to the student’s mental, emotional, or physical health or well-being and the school’s ability to provide a safe and supportive learning environment for the student,” as the parental rights law states.  

So if students tell school counselors that they want to use different pronouns or have access to different restrooms or locker rooms, Hudson said in the video, “then we’re getting into the territory of monitoring and services, and your school administrators need to be brought into the conversation, and we probably need to be having a conversation with the family.” 

Hudson said that staff members aren’t required to disclose information to parents if they have a “reasonable and fact-specific belief” that alerting parents would lead to abuse, abandonment or neglect but that the decision to withhold such information would have to be approved by a principal, documented in a student’s education records and reviewed annually. 

It’s unclear whether state education officials would agree with all of Hudson’s guidance, even though it cites the exact language of the law. At a state Board of Education meeting Wednesday, board member Ryan Petty took issue with a sentence in an LGBTQ resource guide for Hillsborough County Public Schools, which said, “With the limited exception involving the imminent fear of physical harm, it is never appropriate to divulge the sexual orientation of a student to a parent,” the News Service of Florida reported.

As a result of Petty’s objection, Florida Education Commissioner Manny Diaz Jr. directed his staff Wednesday to tell all school districts to pull LGBTQ support documents so the state Board of Education can review them, the News Service of Florida reported. 

Jon Harris Maurer, the public policy director for Equality Florida, a statewide LGBTQ advocacy group, said removing LGBTQ resources, stickers and posters from Florida schools to comply with the parental rights law is “part of a bigger censorship agenda” coming from Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Legislature that is affecting how LGBTQ youths can show up in schools.

“Because this law is so vague, we’re seeing that it’s really playing out 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 is having a real chilling effect where they’ll just pull back entirely.”

DeSantis didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment about the new law or claims that it is part of a “censorship agenda.” When he signed the law on March 28, he said it would ensure “that parents can send their kids 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 directed to remove rainbow Safe Space stickers and posters that show LGBTQ allyship from their walls and doors before the first day of school Monday, The Florida Times-Union reported.  

Duval County Public Schools didn’t reply to a request for comment. District spokesperson Tracy Pierce told The Times-Union that the district is “in the process of rebranding the ‘All in for Safe Schools’ program.”

“The purpose of the rebranding 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 made changes before the Parental Rights in Education law took effect July 1.

In February, Collier County Public Schools, a district that includes part of Naples, began adding parental advisory 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 the 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 newspaper reported. The district said the books were donated to free up office space before a district reorganization.

“We know that these sorts of messages are telling LGBTQ youth that there’s something inherently wrong about LGBTQ people, and they’re telegraphing that these LGBTQ young folks should remain hidden,” Maurer said.

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

“I’ve been extremely overwhelmed as a gay man who now is openly out, because I have to be the advocate,” he said. “People know I’m a union leader, and they know that I’m a gay man. They’re coming to me for questions to be answered, like ‘What do we do?’ And it’s just frustrating for me, because I don’t have answers.”

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