For more than a decade, many Florida schools have relied on “student support guides” to help teachers navigate the delicate issues of LGBTQ+ students in class and after-school clubs.
Now, these guides stand to be undone by Florida’s new Parental Rights in Education law, which critics call “don’t say gay.” Even though the word “gay” is not written in the law, it prohibits instruction related to gender identity and sexual orientation in kindergarten through third grade, and potentially restricts instruction for older students, too.
A review by the South Florida Sun Sentinel shows exactly how the law will wipe out many of the school guides’ key provisions, including how the law bans schools from keeping information about students’ gender identity and pronouns from parents if the students request that. The law is based on the idea that parents — not schools — should have the final say about their children.
Schools saw the guides as a way of ensuring LGBTQ+ students feel free to seek out support from trusted adults on campus, or to advocate for their rights openly in class and in after-school clubs. Many schools embraced them as a set of good practices, especially when it comes to inclusion for transgender and non-binary students. Now, schools are readying for the changes on the way.
“I’m concerned about what the unintended consequences are going to be,” Broward Superintendent Vickie Cartwright said in a recent interview. “We have worked so hard to be an inclusive school district for all children, and this bill is going to make it more difficult for children.”
Here’s a look at the new restrictions that districts will face for the 2022-2023 school year, as the law takes effect July 1.
What do these student guides do?
About a third of Florida’s school districts have relied on LGBTQ+ Critical Support Guides, including some of the state’s largest districts. They include Palm Beach, Broward, Miami-Dade, Hillsborough, and at least 19 other districts statewide.
The guides are not part of the curriculum and teachers are not required to read or teach them. Instead, the guides are meant to be used as a resource for a teacher who wants to better support an LGBTQ+ student through any situation — when facing bullying and harassment, discrimination, coming out of the closet, or navigating complicated personal scenarios.
They are designed to promote a better understanding of LGBTQ+ culture for teachers and administrators in schools, helping to foster a safe and inclusive academic environment and understand the unique needs of LGBTQ+ students. The information available in the guides also was intended to promote a safe working environment for LGBTQ+ staff in schools.
The guides were the result of a 2008 Florida statute known as the “Jeffrey Johnston Stand Up for All Students Act,” which required school districts to draft local anti-bullying policies. Some districts took it further to prohibit bullying and harassment specific to being LGBTQ+. For example, Broward County’s school district teamed up with a coalition of “community members, agencies and parents to draft one of Florida’s first and most inclusive anti-bullying policies” in early 2009. Broward called it “groundbreaking” at the time.
Gov. Ron DeSantis championed the Parental Rights in Education law, and so did Republican lawmakers who took exception with the support guides, particularly over concerns of how schools may keep student information about gender identity and pronouns private from parents.
When he signed the bill into law, DeSantis invited January Littlejohn, a Leon County parent, to share how her child’s school had kept information about her child’s gender identity private from her.
“What happened to our family is why this is needed,” Littlejohn said at the signing. She added that the school told her her teenager’s privacy was protected from her.
“Protected from me and not by me,” Littlejohn said.
What are districts allowed to tell parents?
The guides instruct school districts not to share students’ sexual orientation or gender identity with their parents if the students object. They suggest that disclosing a student’s LGBTQ status could be against federal law, such as Title IX and the 14th Amendment, which ensure equal civil and legal rights regardless of sex and prohibits sex discrimination in any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.
“Administrators, teachers and staff should extend respect and dignity to students who are open about their sexual orientation, gender identity and/or expression,” the guides say.
According to the guides, it is a student’s “right to limit the extent to which, and with whom, the information is shared.” The guides suggest that a teacher say, “Based on policy and federal guidelines, I cannot divulge whether your child and I have had any such confidential conversations, as even students are legally afforded rights of privacy.”
WHAT THE LAW CHANGES: School districts no longer can adopt procedures or student-support forms that prohibit school personnel from telling parents about their students’ “mental, emotional or physical health or well-being” unless a “reasonably prudent person would believe that disclosure would result in abuse, abandonment, or neglect.”
Within the seven pages for the Parental Rights in Education bill, parts of pages three and four describe how school districts must adopt procedures for notifying a student’s parent if there’s a change in students’ “mental, emotional or physical health or well-being.”
The procedures should back parents’ rights to decide their kids’ upbringing by requiring school staff “to encourage a student to discuss issues relating to his or her well-being with his or her parent or to facilitate discussion of the issue with the parent,” the bill states. It says these procedures shouldn’t prevent parents from accessing any of their student’s education or health records.
Broward’s student support guide addresses concerns from parents who aren’t sure about the practices in the guides. The people who drafted the guide included a suggestion to parents concerned about these guidelines.
“Concerned parents need to be reassured discussions of LGBTQ issues are not about sex; rather they are about respecting the diverse people who make up our community,” the guide states. “Teaching tolerance and an awareness of diverse families is always age-appropriate and not in conflict with any religious beliefs.”
The guide also recommended promoting diversity in the classroom, including being inclusive of the LGBTQ community. It states that “an inclusive curriculum” could include books written by LGBTQ authors, history that includes LGBTQ public figures, discussions of families including same-sex parents and recognition of national LGBTQ events, such as LGBT History Month.
WHAT THE LAW CHANGES: The law now will prohibit any and all of those topics from being taught in class. The law’s main clause states: “Classroom instruction by school personnel or third parties on sexual orientation or gender identity may not occur in kindergarten through grade 3 or in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards.”
The law doesn’t define what “age-appropriate” or “developmentally appropriate” means.
Being ‘out’ in school
Under the guides, the school would be permitted to refer to the students by their affirmed names and pronouns in school, and by their names and pronouns assigned at birth when speaking with their parents, if students want that.
Proponents of this practice say it’s necessary so students can determine in which locations they feel safe being openly LGBTQ+, such as instances of being “out” at school but “closeted” at home, and vice versa.
WHAT THE LAW CHANGES: The law’s supporters didn’t want students to be able to keep that information from their parents. The law would strip students of their autonomy around their name and gender pronouns, instead requiring schools to consult with the students’ parents. The law also would prohibit schools from using students’ affirmed names and pronouns without parental consent.
The school district must now notify parents of all the health care services offered at their students’ school, and must give them the option to withhold consent or decline any specific service. That includes “gender-affirming care,” such as referring to a student by their chosen name and pronouns, as well as allowing students to use bathrooms that align with their gender identity.
And before administering a student well-being questionnaire or health screening form to a K-3 student — such as asking which name, pronouns, and restrooms they would like to use — the school district must provide the questionnaire or health screening form to parents to obtain parents’ permission, regardless of whether the student has shared that information with their parent.
Anti-LGBTQ bullying and harassment concerns
The guides advise school districts to not ignore instances of anti-LGBTQ+ bullying and harassment. They encourage teachers to address name-calling and bullying in the moment, using it as a “teachable opportunity.”
WHAT THE LAW CHANGES: Because the law bans instruction regarding sexual orientation and gender identity, critics have argued schools would face a chilling effect, making them less likely to seize on the “teachable opportunity” or defend LGBTQ+ students against bullies.
If a child makes anti-LGBTQ comments to insult or bully another child, teachers may be reluctant to explain that there’s nothing wrong with being gay, minding the restrictions under the new law.
That was among the concerns raised by the Broward and Palm Beach County school boards, which asked the Legislature in March not to pass the bill.
Will school districts no longer use the guides?
So far, some school districts say they’re waiting for the state to weigh in on what changes the student guides will face in the coming school year, while other districts don’t think many changes would be necessary.
The Florida Department of Education has not yet given any guidelines or defined the law’s more vague terms. The department has until June 30, 2023, to “review and update, as necessary, school counseling frameworks and standards; educator practices and professional conduct principles; and any other student services personnel guidelines, standards, or frameworks in accordance with the requirements of this act,” the law states.
School districts have already started removing books or materials that might not align with the new law.
Broward School Board member Sarah Leonardi, a former teacher, said she’s hearing a lot of concerns from teachers, including ones in middle and high school who don’t know how “age appropriate” will be defined.
“It’s creating a stifling environment for teachers. They’re scared of getting sued just for doing their job, part of which is making kids feel safe in school,” she said.
Some districts think the guides still could be used. Miami-Dade schools also has a critical resource guide aimed at making LGBTQ students feel welcome. A spokeswoman doesn’t see the new law leading to any major changes in the guide.
The law “will not prevent us from ensuring that we value the individuality of students while at the same time respecting the rights of parents and families,” spokeswoman Jaquelyn Calzadilla said. “All curriculum and instruction utilized in our classrooms are age and developmentally appropriate and in accordance with state standards.”