States

Florida Is Looking to Expand ‘Don’t Say Gay’ Law. What Does This Mean for Educators?

By Eesha Pendharkar — March 27, 2023 6 min read
Demonstrators gather to speak on the steps of the Florida Historic Capitol Museum in front of the Florida State Capitol on March 7, 2022, in Tallahassee, Fla.
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Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration wants to expand the controversial measure critics call the “Don’t Say Gay” law, aiming to ban instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity in all grades, potentially putting teachers at risk of losing their credentials if found in violation of it.

The Parental Rights in Education law currently forbids instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity in grades K-3, and mandates that instruction on those topics for older students must be age or developmentally appropriate, as determined by the state department of education.

The expanded version, proposed by the Florida department of education on March 22, does not require legislative approval, but a vote by the state board of education. The board is expected to vote on the proposal on April 19. Both the education department and the state board are led by appointees of the governor.

News of the proposed expansion came on the same day as a “Drag and Donuts” event featuring a drag queen organized by Boone High School students in Orlando, had to be canceled due to pressure from the state department of education.

The high school’s queer and ally alliance had invited Jason DeShazo, who performs in drag as Momma Ashley Rose, to speak with high school students on campus for the third year in a row about his experience as a queer man.

The event was “not a drag show, but an opportunity for the students to hear a positive message of acceptance and love,” Boone High School principal Hector Maestre told students and families in an email and voice message, which was sent to Education Week by the district.

But after a phone call from the education department questioning the event’s appropriateness and warning that staff presence at the event might cost them their job or teaching license, the school was forced to cancel DeShazo’s appearance, according to Maestre’s message.

“The department questioned whether the event was age and developmentally appropriate,” he said in his message last week. “And indicated any administrator, teacher, or staff member in attendance may be investigated and jeopardize their professional license.”

Although the current state law wasn’t cited as a reason directly, the department used the “developmentally appropriate” language from the law to question the event.

More than a year since its passing, the department of education has not clarified what instruction includes, according to Brandon Wolf, press secretary for Equality Florida, an LGBTQ rights advocacy organization.

There is no mention of after-school clubs or student-led activities being banned from discussing either sexual orientation or gender identity. Neither does the law put teachers at risk of losing their licenses or job for violating the law.

What the proposed expansion actually says

The expanded version of the law would outlaw all discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity in schools, “unless such instruction is either expressly required by state academic standards ... or is part of a reproductive health course or health lesson for which a student’s parent has the option to have his or her student not attend,” according to the proposed document.

The proposed expansion also says if Florida educators violate the law, they can be subjected “to revocation or suspension of the individual educator’s certificate, or the other penalties as provided by law.”

Florida’s education commissioner might also choose to “pursue disciplinary action against the license of an educator who violates the principles.”

The original “Don’t Say Gay” law holds school districts accountable for violating it, as opposed to individual teachers.

The criticism and defense of the proposed expansion

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said in a press conference on March 22 that the proposed expansion is “completely, utterly wrong,” and that it is part of a “disturbing and dangerous trend” of anti-LGBTQ legislation across the country.

Florida’s commissioner of education, Manny Diaz, responded to a video clip of Jean-Pierre’s comments on the expansion via Twitter.

“Students should be spending their time in school learning core academic subjects, not being force-fed radical gender and sexual ideology,” he said

“In Florida, we’re preserving the right of kids to be kids.”

Florida department of education spokesperson Cassandra Palelis sent Education Week a copy of that tweet, but did not respond to specific questions about the proposed expansion.

“There is no reason for instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity to be part of K-12 public education,” said Bryan Griffin, press secretary for Gov. DeSantis, quoting Diaz’s statement in a tweet. “Full stop.”

Griffin sent Education Week a copy of his tweet in response to a list of questions.

“I think what you’re seeing is political theater on the part of the governor that’s having real life consequences on the ground,” Wolf from Equality Florida said.

The impact of the current law

In the year since the “Don’t Say Gay” law passed, its impact has been felt across the country, primarily in the form of districts walking back access to LGBTQ resources and books.

Dozens of copycat versions of the law that make it more extreme and expand on the ban that Florida imposed have been proposed by Republican legislators across the country.

Within Florida, the law has been cited as a basis for challenging dozens of books because they contain references to LGBTQ characters, for example, a picture book called And Tango Makes Three for elementary-level readers about two male penguins that adopted a baby penguin. It has also resulted in Safe Space stickers being removed from classroom windows, or districts refusing to recognize LGBTQ history month.

Now, the expanded version directly threatens teachers as opposed to districts in the previous iteration, Wolf said.

“This proposal puts the legal liability on the individual educator putting their professional license on the line if they violate this new proposed policy,” Wolf said. “And so it’s no longer about parents holding individual districts accountable. And instead about teachers fearing that they’re going to lose their jobs and not be able to be educators anymore.”

With the effect of the current version of the law already felt on books for younger children being challenged and resources being withdrawn, the expanded version is almost certain to have those same impacts on older students as well, Wolf said.

Title IX requires schools to protect LGBTQ students from discrimination

Over the last year, many districts in Florida have banned books about LGBTQ characters, or temporarily removed them, in order to avoid violating the law. The department made a training for Florida librarians mandatory, which urged them to follow state laws such as the Don’t Say Gay law and “err on the side of caution” while choosing books.

Education Week reached out to four districts to ask about the potential impacts of the new proposed version.

Hillsborough County Public Schools and Pinellas County Schools said they “do not comment on pending legislation.”

“We do not teach about gender identity and sexual orientation in grades K-3, so the law does not impact us regarding that topic,” said Tanya Arja, chief of communications for the Hillsborough district, in response to being asked how the current “Don’t Say Gay” law impacted Hillsborough.

Hillsborough County’s inclusion policies, including one on racial equity and another on safe spaces for LGBTQ students, were scrutinized last year by the state department of education for potentially violating the state’s laws, including the “Don’t Say Gay” law.

Officials in Duval County Schools and Miami Dade County Schools—the largest school district in Florida—did not respond to requests for comment.

“School districts should not be preemptively censoring content that does not fall under the purview of this legislation,” Wolf said.

Districts have a responsibility under federal law to protect LGBTQ students and not discriminate against them on the basis of their gender or sexual identity, he said.

“I know that’s difficult in this political climate [but] schools have a responsibility to all students and they cannot simply abandon LGBTQ students.”

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