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Some Florida schools try to ease impact of laws aimed at LGBTQ+ students

Districts like Pinellas County say they have found ways to show compassion while following new rules.
 
Pinellas County Schools Superintendent Kevin Hendrick, shown at an October school board meeting, says his district aims to respect every student and employee. The district recently issued an Inclusive Schools Support Guide toward that end.
Pinellas County Schools Superintendent Kevin Hendrick, shown at an October school board meeting, says his district aims to respect every student and employee. The district recently issued an Inclusive Schools Support Guide toward that end. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Nov. 30, 2023|Updated Dec. 1, 2023

Pinellas County Schools will allow teachers to use students’ preferred pronouns if the children’s parents submit a formal request.

They will let children wear any clothing that meets the district’s dress code, “even if it is not stereotypically associated with their biological sex at birth.”

And when an employee receives information about a student’s gender identity or sexual orientation, that information alone won’t require them to notify parents.

These are some of the directions the district is providing to its faculty and staff as part of its Inclusive Schools Support Guide, revised to incorporate recently adopted state laws that have placed restrictions on how schools deal with sex and gender.

Members of the LGBTQ+ community and their supporters have, over the past two months, demanded the district publicly release its rules and recommendations so students, parents and employees know what to expect.

“These guidelines give teachers and parents tools to protect every student and respect every family,” said Ant Avila, a community organizer for the LGBTQ+ advocacy group Equality Florida. “They are never going to be perfect, so we don’t expect the content to really meet our expectations. But they exist to mitigate the harms of the laws.”

The release of the Pinellas guide comes at a time of heightened attention statewide to gender issues in schools.

A Broward County high school faced scrutiny in recent days over its decision to allow a transgender student to play on the girls volleyball team. The Broward district has removed five employees, including the principal, as it investigates what state officials are calling an illegal act. Students and others protested the treatment of the administrators, walking out of classes to show solidarity with the student athlete.

Farther north, the Orange County school district moved toward allowing employees to call students by preferred pronouns with parent consent.

Districts across Florida have been grappling with how to handle situations involving LGBTQ+ youth in a way that follows state laws while also demonstrating compassion for students. In December 2022, several districts including Hillsborough County faced criticism from the Florida Department of Education for support guides that state officials found too permissive.

The Pinellas district removed its 2020 set of guidelines from its website almost two years ago, as the state began cracking down on districts for what it said were violations of parental rights laws. Superintendent Kevin Hendrick said the rules remained in place administratively, even if they were not posted.

“Our school board’s vision of 100% student success means every student in our district,” Hendrick said at a recent board meeting. “Each student and each employee is valued and respected.”

People who attended the meeting said they appreciated that sentiment. They commended the district for consulting the community and updating its documents. At the same time, they argued that the public deserves to know where the district stands on issues they described as polarizing and disheartening.

“You can push back against that (anti-LGBTQ+) campaign by vigorously promoting and enforcing your policies for safe and inclusive schools,” retired teacher John Stewart told the superintendent and board.

School board member Eileen Long, a retired teacher, said the community deserved to have the information.

“If you are a parent of a child in that category, I think you have a right to know what the rules are,” Long said in an interview after the meeting. “I also think that teachers are running scared. They don’t know what they can do and not do. With that being public or being found on the website, it will give some teachers and some parents relief.”

The Hillsborough and Pasco school districts released their revised guidelines to employees earlier in the school year.

Many of the rules look alike across county lines.

Each district made clear that state law does not permit transgender females to play on girls sports teams — the issue that the Broward district is confronting. Each also reiterated that if a school allows one all-access club, like the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, it must allow for all such clubs, including the Gay-Straight Alliance.

They also stressed the importance of shutting down discriminatory and hateful anti-LGBTQ+ language as bullying, saying not to ignore it and let it fester.

In other cases, the districts take differing approaches to the same subject, highlighting that the laws can be confusing.

For instance, Pinellas and Hillsborough say that employees may use students’ preferred pronouns if parents have formally filed a letter of consent. Pasco, by contrast, says that is not permitted, telling staff: “Utilizing a student’s preferred pronouns, which do not match the student’s statutorily defined sex, would be a ‘false’ act by you” and subject to disciplinary action by the state.

The Florida Department of Education recently sent a letter to the Orange district suggesting that “false” statements are not necessarily “prohibited.”

Regarding sex-segregated restrooms and locker rooms, each of the local districts focuses on making private changing facilities and unisex restrooms available for students who need them. Each also discusses making plans in consultation with a student’s family, on a case-by-case basis.

Pasco and Hillsborough go a step further, though, in making clear that the enforcement comes on the back end of a violation. They say if a student uses a facility that is not in line with their sex assigned at birth, the discipline comes if they are told to leave and refuse. The Pinellas guide makes no similar reference.

Whatever their conclusions, Avila of Equality Florida said it’s important that districts be transparent.

“We’re not calling on districts to be politically oriented,” Avila said. ”We’re calling on them to do what they are set up to do: provide an equitable environment for every student. That means navigating the law.”

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