A move by Republican leaders that would broaden Florida’s Parental Rights in Education Act to include high schools was met with skepticism and alarm on Thursday by educators who fear it could strain important relationships between teachers and their teenage students.
The directive, proposed by Commissioner of Education Manny Diaz and backed by Gov. Ron DeSantis, would strengthen the 2022 law, which restricts teachers’ ability in grades K-3 to discuss matters pertaining to sexual orientation or gender identity.
If the State Board of Education approves the measure on April 19, as expected, those instructions will cover grades K-12.
“I’m still trying to process everything,” said Hillsborough County School Board chairperson Nadia Combs, two days after her board spent nearly two hours listening to members of the public recite racy, often violent passages from controversial library books.
Critics of the rule predicted dire consequences, as it follows other measures seen as hostile to minority groups and the LGBTQ+ community. Among them: a bill moving through the Legislature that would stop teachers from using students’ pronouns if they do not correspond with their gender assigned at birth.
“I think about pulling kids from public schools, maybe once a month,” said Veronica McDonald, an active Hillsborough volunteer with four children between kindergarten and seventh grade. “I do worry about even the quality of education that my kids are going to be receiving.”
The idea behind the Parental Rights in Education Act, called the Don’t Say Gay bill by critics, was that parents should be consulted if a student needs mental health services or other assistance at school. Discussions about gender identity were to be off-limits in the younger years, and allowed in the older grades only if they were age-appropriate.
DeSantis has said the measure addressed what he saw as a problem with educators spreading “radical ideology” in public schools.
But many school employees found the law vague, and feared they could be sanctioned if they made statements that offended a parent or community member.
Diaz said at a news conference Thursday that the proposed expansion seeks to clear up that confusion.
“This rule says basically we are sticking to the standards,” Diaz said. “There were a lot of questions about what is age-appropriate. This clarifies it for everyone.”
Rather than feeling reassured, some school leaders predict teachers will find themselves in impossible predicaments when their students come to them with problems, or bring up topics in class that reference gender identity or sexual orientation.
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“Do I think a lot of gender identity will be brought up in math class? Probably not,” McDonald said. But in English classes, “possibly. In sociology or psychology? Probably. I think that kids can make those segues very easily. And good luck when a teacher says they can’t talk about it.”
More concerning to Pinellas teachers union president Nancy Velardi are the personal conversations between students and teachers.
“To be perfectly frank, children are going to die,” she said. “I was the sponsor of our Gay-Straight Alliance for 18 years. I know of three kids I personally kept from committing suicide. If they have no representation and nothing showing that they are normal, that they are normalized in the world, they are going to take their lives. It is not a question. It is a definite.”
Pinellas County School Board member Eileen Long said the issue of parental rights becomes enormously complicated when students reach high school age.
“Sometimes young adults can’t go to their parents,” she said. “Or they’re afraid to go to their parents. Or what if a child gets pregnant and is afraid to tell her parents? I can just see it opening up a can of worms everywhere.”
Terry Kemple, a conservative leader who was among those who organized Tuesday’s speakers in Hillsborough about the library books, said the proposed expansion will accomplish several important objectives.
“It tells teachers, you are not responsible to teach kids about sexual values or sex or sexuality,” he said. “It reinforces parents’ rights to be addressed by teachers when students come to them with questions or problems. And it forces elected officials to shine a light on what they’re doing in the schools.”
But at a time of rampant teacher shortages, district leaders worry that the proposed rule could drive even more teachers away.
“Teachers are hesitant to teach and worried that they’ll be arrested or lose their certificate,” said Hillsborough board member Lynn Gray. “And who do you think gets hurt and bullied? We have increased bullying of our LGBTQ (students).”
Henry “Shake” Washington, another Hillsborough board member, said, “I think it’s going to be unbelievable, almost devastating. You have to be in a relationship and talk about life sometimes. If somebody needs help, you’ve got to be able to talk to them. And if you can’t, you’re putting kids in a bad predicament.”
The announcement was met with anger at a governor who, in the eyes of his critics, is exploiting intolerance to win political points.
“I do think part of that is a distraction from the dismantling of public education,” Combs said. Challenges that districts face include a school choice movement that is causing traditional schools to lose money and students.
“Now people are talking about this and not the fact that there’s no oversight” in the proposed school voucher expansion, she said. “It‘s a free for all.”
Times staff writer Jeffrey S. Solochek contributed to this report.
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