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Florida prods Hillsborough schools on policies regarding race, LGBTQ students

The district appears slow to comply with the new “Stop WOKE” and parental rights laws, state education officials say.
The Hillsborough County school district has been notified that some of its policies don't comply with new state laws regarding gender and race issues.
The Hillsborough County school district has been notified that some of its policies don't comply with new state laws regarding gender and race issues. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Dec. 7, 2022|Updated Dec. 8, 2022

State education officials have put the Hillsborough County school district on notice that its policies have not kept up with Florida’s new laws on gender identity and racial issues.

The concerns were outlined in a Nov. 18 letter from Jacob Oliva, the chancellor of public schools for the Florida Department of Education. It’s the latest in a series of moves by state officials to bring districts in line with the new “stop WOKE” law and the parental rights law that critics nicknamed “Don’t Say Gay.”

Both laws were championed by Gov. Ron DeSantis, and have forced educators to rethink some of their work.

Some other districts, including Palm Beach County, have received similar letters asking local educators to take a hard look at their policies and practices. Hillsborough school officials issued a written response, due to the state on Friday, saying it is working to make sure it is in compliance. The School Board will discuss the matter at its meeting Tuesday.

Oliva’s letter cited a Hillsborough training document called “Creating Safe Schools for ALL Students.” The guide book, which was revised in August to reflect changes in the law, outlines steps that should be taken to allow students to use restrooms and locker rooms that are consistent with the gender identities they assert at school. “Each situation needs to be reviewed, addressed, and customized based on the particular circumstances of the student and the school facilities,” the handbook says.

It also provides guidance for staff to use when a student decides to “come out.” Teachers are advised on how to respond in a sensitive, nonjudgmental manner.

On the issue of whether teachers can share sexual orientation information with parents, there are changes in tone and emphasis from an older guide to the newer version.

The older version said staff should refrain from notifying parents unless they were compelled by a serious concern about the student’s safety. The newer version says teachers should encourage students to discuss such issues with their parents. It says staff are permitted to withhold information from a parent “if a reasonably prudent person would believe that disclosure would result in abuse, abandonment, or neglect.”

Monica Verra-Tirado, the district’s chief diversity officer, said the guide has been updated several times. She said staff were never directed to be dishonest with parents, and the district has always encouraged conversation within families.

“Parent support and engagement are critical,” Verra-Tirado said. “The more that we can help students and families connect, the better off our kids and our families and our community will be.”

The newer version also acknowledges that, under current law, “parents must be notified if there is a change in 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.”

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Oliva reminded the district that parents now have administrative remedies they can pursue if they believe the schools are denying them their rights under the law.

Already, there has been a challenge to Hillsborough’s human sexuality curriculum that led to a formal hearing in November. Hearing master Claudia Rickert Isom, in a ruling on Nov. 30, found that the district did not commit any irregularities in adopting the curriculum and that the materials did not include pornography, as was alleged.

Oliva’s letter also flagged Hillsborough’s 2017 policy on racial equity. In the introduction, that policy says it “confronts the institutional racism that results in predictably lower academic achievement for students of color than for their white peers.” The policy is sometimes cited as the legal basis for giving special attention and resources to Hillsborough’s high-poverty and high-minority schools.

Oliva did not specify the problem with the policy. But the term “institutional racism” could be seen as contradicting the “stop WOKE” law, which prohibits schools and companies from leveling guilt or blame based on race.

School Board Attorney Jim Porter noted that the policy has helped the district win national awards. In 2018, the National Black Council of School Board Members honored Hillsborough with its Recognizing Innovative Strategies in Equity, or RISE award, partly because of the policy. Hillsborough also took top honors from the Council of Urban Boards of Education in 2019.

Nevertheless, Porter said, “we’re looking at the policy to see if that term violates any part of the law. And if it does, we’ll recommend that the board modify it.”

On both issues, the district assured the state it will work with state legal counsel to resolve any discrepancies.

On Wednesday, the day after the School Board discussion, the State Board of Education is due for an update on a statewide review of district practices under question.

Oliva told the State Board on Oct. 19 that he expects all such policies and guidelines to be updated by early 2023.