Florida’s new ‘parental rights’ law means more paperwork for Pasco parents

School officials said they want to be certain they have consent before providing services.
Buses arrive at Sunlake High School during the first day of school for Pasco County Students in 2021. For the new school year, parents are being asked to fill out more paperwork than in the past.
Buses arrive at Sunlake High School during the first day of school for Pasco County Students in 2021. For the new school year, parents are being asked to fill out more paperwork than in the past. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published July 22, 2022

LAND O’LAKES — Every year, Pasco County parents receive a stack of papers to sign as their children return to school.

Many often don’t return the forms.

This year, if they ignore the documents, they will do so at their own peril. District officials said they will be relying more than ever on the consent forms to choose what services students may and may not receive throughout the school year.

They can thank the Florida Legislature and its updates to the state “parental rights” law. This spring, lawmakers required school districts to take additional steps to ensure that parents have full information about health services, library materials, sex education curriculum and certain other programs.

The district is using the forms to verify parents have received the information and made independent choices regarding their children’s education, as the law mandates.

“The parent is the one that has a lot of added responsibility under this particular law,” superintendent Kurt Browning said.

Parents will be asked to sign online consent forms related to human growth and development courses, library usage, health services, student surveys and privacy, and appearance in media-related activities. They’ll also be asked to acknowledge receipt of more than a dozen other documents and rules, such as the student code of conduct, anti-bullying protocols and school choice guidelines.

In past years, students whose parents or guardians did not submit the materials would still be eligible for services such as vision exams. With the new law in place, that will no longer be the case.

Without explicit parental consent for such health-related actions, the district will not provide them, student services director Melissa Musselwhite said.

“If you don’t elect (a choice) under the health pieces, it will automatically default to no,” Musselwhite said.

Browning, whose wife has worked for years as a nurse in schools serving high-poverty communities, said he worried that some children whose families don’t fill out the forms will lose out on assistance that might help improve their academics.

Some students might appear unable to learn, but it’s a hearing or vision problem that could go undetected without that parental consent, he noted.

On the other side of the equation, there might be some parents who do not want their children to have access to certain materials in the school library. If a parent does not fill out the library checkout consent form, Musselwhite said the plan will default to being allowed access to those materials.

Parents will be able to see the catalog of available titles online, as required by law, she said. But rather than trying to track the permissions of every child for every title, the district is putting the onus on the parents to either tell their children what types of books to avoid, or choose not to let them use library materials.

“It’s all in or all out,” Musselwhite said.

The same holds true for sex education. The materials will be online in advance, and it will be up to the parents to opt their children out if they object. No form will mean the kids take the class.

School Board members in the past have not favored opt-in programs for fear that some children might be left out through parental disengagement. They urged the administration to take any steps necessary to assist families in completing all the documentation.

That could include having computer kiosks available at the schools, and sending paper reminders. Parents will get an additional nudge when they go to “meet the teacher” day, and cannot get a class schedule until the forms are complete.

District spokesperson Steve Hegarty said schools also will track students who do not have the documentation, and will send targeted requests to them. For now, though, the messages are being sent to everyone as they prepare for the Aug. 10 return to school.

The goal is to make it as easy as possible, Hegarty said.

But “I know we will have some frustrated parents,” Musselwhite added.

• • •

Sign up for the Gradebook newsletter!

Every Thursday, get the latest updates on what’s happening in Tampa Bay area schools from Times education reporter Jeffrey S. Solochek. Click here to sign up.