TALLAHASSEE — With a stroke of his pen, a defiant Gov. Ron DeSantis shot back at critics in Florida and across the country.
On Monday, surrounded by Republican legislators, the governor signed House Bill 1557, called the “Parental Rights in Education” bill.
Critics have dubbed the measure Florida’s “don’t say gay” legislation because, although the bill does not mention the word “gay,” it prohibits instruction related to gender identity or sexual orientation in kindergarten through third grade and potentially restricts such instruction for older kids.
The measure allows parents who believe a teacher is violating the rules to sue a school district for damages and attorneys fees. It takes effect July 1.
“In Florida, we not only know that parents have a right to be involved, we insist that parents have a right to be involved,” DeSantis said while standing behind a lectern emblazoned with the slogan, “Protect children. Support parents.”
DeSantis signed the bill at Classical Preparatory School in Spring Hill. The charter school was started in 2014 by the wife of education commissioner Richard Corcoran. The governor has signed several education measures this spring at charter schools, despite the fact that the bills do not apply to charters.
When it was originally filed, the legislation restricted “classroom discussion” about gender identity and sexual orientation. The bill’s language later changed to prohibit “classroom instruction by school personnel or third parties” about those topics in K-3 — or in older grades in a way that is not “age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards.”
The bill requires the state to update those standards by June 30, 2023. When asked Monday what “age-appropriate” means, Corcoran said his department would “work it out so that people have a clear understanding.”
While it’s unclear how exactly the bill will shape Florida schools, opponents contend it will result in a chilling effect that will lead some teachers to avoid any discussion of gender identity or sexual orientation.
“This line shouldn’t be drawn between gay and straight. Where does that line devolve to normal vs. weird?” said Iris Pupo, a senior at Lakewood High School in St. Petersburg who participated in a rally against the measure earlier this year. “It’s just another part of human life.”
Other provisions in the law
The new law also prohibits schools from enacting policies that prevent the disclosure to parents of “critical decisions” that affect “a student’s mental, emotional, or physical health or well-being,” although schools could still withhold certain information if they believe the disclosure would result in abuse, neglect or abandonment.
Some LGBTQ advocates worry that provision could lead to schools outing gay or transgender kids to their parents.
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“‘Don’t say gay’ sends a harmful message to our most vulnerable youth who simply need our support,” said Rep. Carlos Smith, D-Orlando, one of the few openly gay state lawmakers, on a call Monday with reporters.
At his bill signing ceremony, DeSantis said lawmakers had found at least six school districts — Volusia, Hillsborough, Sarasota, Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade — that “cut parents out of decisions regarding their child’s well-being.”
According to a House bill analysis from February, several of those school districts had policies that prohibited schools from disclosing a student’s sexual orientation without their consent.
“Just as teachers and school administrators cannot discourage a student from being ‘out’ at school, they also cannot encourage (or even force) a student to be ‘out’ at home,” Broward’s policy reads.
Sarasota parent Ashley Cote attended the bill signing with her 9-year-old son, Derek. She said the bill is important because it puts control of health decisions more firmly in parents’ hands. Cote said she had problems with her son’s school in how it provided mental health services, although she declined to explain further.
”If there is a change in services, parents will be notified. That was not done in my district, and someone needs to hold them accountable,” Cote said.
The bill requires schools to inform parents every year about health services offered and to give them the opportunity to accept or reject those services.
Defiant DeSantis doubles down
As lawmakers debated the bill earlier this year, hundreds of Florida students took to the halls of the Capitol in Tallahassee to voice their opposition. The White House is opposed to the legislation.
Gay entertainers lampooned the measure on Sunday evening’s broadcast of the Academy Awards, and earlier this month on Saturday Night Live.
After DeSantis affixed his signature Monday, Disney came out with a statement saying the bill “should never have been signed into law” and added that the company is supporting organizations working to get the law struck down in the courts or repealed by the Legislature.
That criticism has only emboldened DeSantis, who on Monday accused critics of “sloganeering and fake narratives.”
Republican supporters of the bill have contended the news media and the bill’s opponents have intentionally distorted the legislation’s meaning. They have argued that when voters read the language of the seven-page bill, they come away in favor of its provisions.
A Morning Consult and Politico poll of 2,005 registered voters from earlier this month found that 50 percent of voters support banning instruction on gender identity and sexual orientation in kindergarten through third-grade classrooms. About 34 percent of voters oppose that ban, according to the poll.
Instruction on those topics is not currently a part of the curriculum in the state’s kindergarten through third-grade classrooms. According to the Morning Consult-Politico poll, 41 percent of those surveyed supported allowing parents to sue schools over alleged violations of the law, while 43 percent were against that provision.
Seven Republican lawmakers in the House voted against the bill, and two in the Senate — an unusual sign of party fracture in the GOP-dominated Florida Legislature. One House Democrat supported the bill.
Since it passed, DeSantis has repeatedly mischaracterized what the bill does. He’s said the measure will stop young students from being “sexualized” in the classroom. His press secretary, Christina Pushaw, tweeted that opponents of the bill were likely “groomers” — a reference to the way pedophiles gain the trust of their victims before abusing them.
Amendments offered by Democratic and Republican lawmakers to broaden the bill to include a prohibition on teaching young kids about all kinds of human sexuality — not just topics that appear to relate to LGBTQ Floridians — were roundly rejected by GOP lawmakers.
“They don’t want to admit that they support a lot of the things that we’re protecting against,” DeSantis said Monday of the bill’s opponents. “For example, they support sexualizing kids in kindergarten. They support injecting woke gender ideology into second-grade classrooms. They support enabling schools to ‘transition’ students to a ‘different gender’ without the knowledge of the parent.”
Some advocates note that Florida has a long history of attempting to discourage young people from “recruitment” into homosexuality. The Legislature’s so-called “Johns Committee” released a report in 1964 warning that homosexuality poses “a threat to the health and moral well-being of a sizable portion of our population, particularly our youth.”
“Gov. DeSantis has launched a smear campaign to attack LGBTQ people and baselessly accuse us of being pedophiles,” Rep. Smith said. “These are the same tactics that were used ... by the Johns (Committee) decades ago.”