In Florida schools, parent permission now a must for many more activities

Supporters say the change will boost parental involvement but others fear a drop in student participation.
Students board waiting buses at Gulf High School in Pasco County in April 2022. Today, because of new state rules, Pasco students must get a parent's permission to participate in all activities and events, including football games.
Students board waiting buses at Gulf High School in Pasco County in April 2022. Today, because of new state rules, Pasco students must get a parent's permission to participate in all activities and events, including football games. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]
Published Sept. 28|Updated Sept. 29

Pinellas County high schools will now require permission slips for students to access library books deemed appropriate for juniors and seniors only.

Pasco County school officials are revamping consent forms for after-school activities and events, including football games. If their parents don’t sign, kids can’t go.

Hillsborough County schools have told students they must have written approval from home to participate in clubs.

In past years, schools told families they could opt out if they didn’t want their children to read certain materials, take part in specific activities or receive available services. Nonresponses were taken as passive consent.

As state Republican leaders push to give parents more control over public schools, they’ve shifted the terms. Instead of having concerned parents opt out, they want all parents to opt in.

Officials have been moving in this direction at the behest of conservative organizations like Parents Defending Freedom and Florida Citizens Alliance that have raised various concerns. Among them: school surveys that can violate student privacy and families not being told before controversial topics are brought up in class.

Complaints about Gay-Straight Alliance and similar organizations also have driven groups in several communities to demand permission slips for school clubs.

But local leaders who have faced such debates in the past say they worry about the parents who can’t, don’t or won’t respond for whatever reason. Those parents’ inaction could leave students ostracized from school activities and unable to receive services such as tutoring.

Keeping parents informed is one thing, they said. Getting them to respond is another.

State lawmakers came close to mandating an opt-in for sex education in 2021 before deleting the language from its bill, which required schools to better publicize the lessons it teaches. As the “parental rights” movement gained more traction this year, the State Board of Education adopted a rule over the summer giving school districts little wiggle room when it comes to extracurriculars.

The rule says schools must “fully inform” parents about the details of all events, activities and programs, and also “require signed parent or guardian permission forms.” It did not say whether the signed forms must be for opting in or opting out, just that districts must have procedures that include them.

Most are going the opt-in route. State Rep. Alex Rizo, R-Hialeah, is all for it.

State Rep. Alex Rizo
State Rep. Alex Rizo [ Florida House of Representatives ]

The former teacher and assistant principal, who is chairperson of one of the three education-related committees he sits on, contends that requiring parent permission ensures the highest level of parental notification and communication on critical issues.

Follow what’s happening in Tampa Bay schools

Follow what’s happening in Tampa Bay schools

Subscribe to our free Gradebook newsletter

We’ll break down the local and state education developments you need to know every Thursday.

You’re all signed up!

Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.

Explore all your options

Opting out, by contrast, requires no response from parents, he noted, meaning a school has done its part once it sends home a notification. Whether the message gets through is an unknown.

“Parents are the ultimate arbiters of whatever goes on in their children’s education,” Rizo said. “One of the things that we want in our school system is we want more parental involvement. That is the key to student success.”

Convincing everyone to respond can prove challenging.

The Pinellas County school district, for instance, had about a 46% response rate on a form indicating the level of access children could have in school libraries. Getting parents to turn it in was no different from any other form, superintendent Kevin Hendrick told his board, noting how much effort it can take to receive even emergency contact cards for school clinics.

Rizo acknowledged the potential difficulties inherent in securing parental permission. He suggested that schools could benefit in the long run by improving their communication with families, adding that parents will step up as they see the importance of their responses.

Pasco County School Board vice chairperson Alison Crumbley had a different perspective. Crumbley joined her colleagues in 2019 to oppose requiring parent permission slips for student club participation.

The rationale for opt-ins is clear, she said. Some parents will complain if they learn that their children are participating in something they don’t like, she said, while some will say that they never received information about programs or opting out.

But for every parent who stays on top of what their child is doing in school, Crumbley said, there is a parent who doesn’t have time, won’t fill out forms, or can’t understand what’s being asked. Their children could lose out on valuable experiences.

“One hundred percent, that’s the downside,” she said, “if they don’t get to be in something because they haven’t heard about it, and it might be something good and beneficial.”

Crumbley agreed that communication is critical as more and more forms are required.

Sometimes it’s still not enough.

Hillsborough County junior Moses May, who leads the Gay-Straight Alliance at Gaither High, said the requirement of parent permission for clubs has hurt students who don’t find support at home.

“My GSA is supposed to provide a safe space,” May said. “Now people who need a safe space can’t get a safe space.”

The club had more than 50 members a year ago, he said. Now it’s down to 10.

“They’re scared their parents are going to throw them out of the house,” he said, adding that the group is looking for other avenues to gather. “The school can’t control what we do outside of school.”

Neither an opt-in or opt-out model is perfect for getting responses, said Frauke Kreuter, who teaches statistics and sociology at the University of Maryland and Ludwig-Maximilians University in Germany.

“Whatever the default is will create the higher rates,” Kreuter said via email. “Doing an active click is more work … so the easy route is staying with the default.”

She added that an opt-out process allows for the greatest possible participation, as those who choose not to take part can do so, while others still have the choice of not joining even if they have not signed a form.

At the same time, asking parents to opt in for too many things can get unwieldy, said Julie Underwood, dean emerita of the University of Wisconsin School of Education.

“You could spend more time asking permission and sorting children into yes and no groups than you would on actually delivering instruction,” Underwood said via email. “Completely customized instruction for each child each day is neither feasible nor effective.”

Rizo, the state representative, said the issue is complicated, but also important to get right.

“The public will let us know if we went too far,” he said.

• • •

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.