LAND O’ LAKES — In a widely anticipated move, Pasco County superintendent Kurt Browning on Thursday instructed employees to remove “safe space” stickers from all schools.
The stickers typically have rainbow designs and indicate support for LGBTQ students. Some of them include the Pasco County Schools logo and were paid for by the district.
Citing Florida’s new “parental rights in education” law, Browning noted in his memo to staff that schools are now required to inform parents of any changes to their children’s services or monitoring related to the mental, emotional or physical health or well-being.
The “safe space” stickers often carry the perception that children might say things to teachers or other trusted school workers that will not be repeated, school district spokesperson Steve Hegarty said.
“We are not doing that,” Hegarty said, adding that the action was intended to eliminate confusion on that point for both students and employees. “We don’t want there to be any misunderstandings.”
Removing the stickers that the district once provided illustrates Florida’s shifting political environment, he added. The law has been derided as a “don’t say gay” measure by detractors, who contend Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Legislature have targeted LGBTQ Floridians as a way to activate a right-wing base.
It opens the door for parents to sue schools that don’t meet the requirements. Yet many of its mandates remain vague, leading districts to act with added caution, said Andrea Messina, executive director of the Florida School Boards Association.
The Duval and Orange county districts also have called for the removal of safe space stickers.
“Due to the litigious encouragement in the statutes, districts are being as proactive as they can be to avoid any liability,” Messina said. “They don’t want to falsely advertise expectations ... that they may not be able to follow through on.”
Over the past few years, the Pasco district has faced criticism from community members about the stickers. Some residents have told the school board as recently as Tuesday that the stickers appear to offer special services to certain students, most often in the LGBTQ community, and provide cover for educators to hide information from parents.
Parent Tori Tiffany raised the issue with the board this week, demanding to know, “What exactly is a safe space? Shouldn’t the entire school be a safe space?”
In his memo to staff, Browning stated that schools should be safe places for all students, with or without stickers. He pointed to the district’s policies on anti-bullying, anti-harassment and nondiscrimination as ways schools will be expected to protect all students’ rights and to “promote and maintain a tolerant and diverse educational environment.”
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Others saw the move differently. Brandon Wolf, spokesperson for the LGBTQ advocacy group Equality Florida, deplored the district’s ban. Wolf said LGBTQ youth face higher rates of depression, anxiety, bullying and violence than their peers, and suggested removing the stickers would do nothing to help.
“Pasco County Schools is bending to the political will of the governor, stripping schools of safe space stickers and sending a direct message to students that being LGBTQ is something to be ashamed of and hidden away,” Wolf said via text message. “Superintendent Browning has expressed a goal of creating a district-wide safe environment. But the reality is that for vulnerable LGBTQ young people, that is simply not the case.”
Emma Cohen, who graduated from Sunlake High in the spring, also criticized the decision. Members of the LGBTQ community did not always feel support from the district, Cohen said, citing the elimination of some student clubs as an example.
“This is just another sign that inclusivity is just a word to them,” Cohen said.
Cohen noted that removing stickers won’t change the fact that kids know which teachers have their backs. But they did worry that the district action might deter some supportive educators from taking jobs, which would negatively affect students.
Teacher David Berger, who is gay, sponsors the Gay-Straight Alliance at Land O’ Lakes High. He said when he was growing up, schools did not have clear signs of safe spaces for students who might be looking for a place to find support.
Taking down the stickers doesn’t change the positive way teachers feel about their students, Berger said, but it does provide a negative outward signal to the community. He rejected the view that “all spaces in schools are safe” as a platitude akin to saying “all lives matter.”
That’s the ideal, Berger said. “But we know that is not the case. Hence the need for the stickers in the first place.”
Cathy Julian, a leader of the conservative Pasco Watch group, called the decision “unbelievably good.” Often a detractor of the district, Julian said the administration made an appropriate move.
“I think schools should be safe places,” she said. “I don’t think you should single out any student because of their characteristics.”
Below is the text of Browning’s email Thursday to all administrators and instructional staff:
Pasco County Schools has a diverse population of students, staff, and parents, and as a school district we respect and support the diversity of views and lifestyle choices. It is important that we make our support evident in policy and in practice, and that we reiterate our commitment to supporting all students.
Recent legislation requires that we notify parents whenever there is a change in a 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.
There is a concern that a student’s presence in a designated “safe space” could trigger a duty for Pasco County Schools staff to notify a parent of a potential change in their child’s well-being. There also is a concern that a student might mistakenly believe that a conversation in a designated “space” will not be disclosed to their parent, which could be in violation of the law. Given the difficulty of determining whether a student’s presence in a limited, designated “safe space” location is as an indicator of a student’s emotional or mental well-being, our district will discontinue the utilization of such limited spaces to avoid misinterpretation and a potential violation of the law. Under the new legislation, a parent may bring an action in court for “damages. . . attorney fees and court costs” stemming from a violation of these parental rights.
Therefore, our school district will no longer utilize “safe spaces” and will no longer display “safe space” stickers. The “safe space” stickers will be removed, as they have become a flashpoint that distracts from our goals of creating a school-wide and districtwide safe environment. Additionally, to ensure compliance with recent legislation, staff are not to provide any materials to students that would impact a parent’s right to direct the upbringing, moral training, religious training, and care of their minor children.
It is in the best interests of the district, teachers, and students that we comply with the recent legislation. And it is in everyone’s best interest that we communicate clearly that we support all our students and that all areas of our campuses are safe places.
To promote and maintain a tolerant and diverse educational environment, our students, staff, and parents must continue to comply with Pasco County Schools’ prohibition against discrimination, harassment, and bullying. Please review SB Policies 5517 (Anti-Harassment), 5517.01 (Anti-Bullying), and 2260 (Non-Discrimination), or contact your school administrator for additional information regarding the enforcement of the above-listed policies. Doing so will promote a safe and healthy learning environment where all our students and staff, regardless of individual belief systems, can gather for the purposes of obtaining a world class education. All questions regarding this should be directed to this link.
Kurt S. Browning
Pasco County Superintendent of Schools
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