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As ‘don’t say gay’ law takes effect in Florida, confusion reigns over classroom rules

Orlando Sentinel logoOrlando Sentinel 7/3/2022 Leslie Postal, Orlando Sentinel
Students hold a rally outside a Orange County School Board meeting on May 24, 2022, in Orlando, Florida, as a student group based at Winter Park High and a local group opposed to book bans gather to rally against state laws, including "don't say gay." © Ricardo Ramirez Buxeda/Orlando Sentinel/TNS Students hold a rally outside a Orange County School Board meeting on May 24, 2022, in Orlando, Florida, as a student group based at Winter Park High and a local group opposed to book bans gather to rally against state laws, including "don't say gay."

ORLANDO, Fla. — The new Florida law dubbed “don’t say gay” by its critics kicked in Friday, banning instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in primary grades — and creating fears that all topics related to LGBTQ people are off limits in public schools.

State leaders dismiss those complaints, saying the law, officially known as the Parental Rights in Education act, or HB 1557, has been the subject of “fear mongering” and does not attack gay or transgender students, employees or parents.

The law’s goal is to limit instruction on those topics in the earliest grades, leaving that up to parents, and to make sure such lessons are “age appropriate” in older grades.

But an Orange County Public Schools workshop on the new law held last month — one that district attorneys admitted “caused more confusion than clarity” — showcased the worries many educators have about the new legislation.

“It’s basically making something against the law that was already not a thing,” said Gretchen Robinson, a veteran high school teacher in Orange County, who is confident elementary school colleagues never provided lessons on sexual orientation or gender identity.

In her view, the law’s real goal is clear: “Hostile signaling against the LGBTQ community.”

The Biden administration agreed, criticizing Florida’s measure as “shameful” and homophobic in a statement Friday.

“Today, some of Florida’s most vulnerable students and families are more fearful and less free,” said the statement from White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre.

“The Department of Education will be monitoring this law, and any student or parent who believes they are experiencing discrimination is encouraged to file a complaint with the Department’s Office for Civil Rights,” she said.

The OCPS workshops, held last month, aimed to update 600 principals and assistant principals about new laws affecting campuses. At these “camp legal” meetings there was a lot of interest in HB 1557 and a lot of questions posed to the district’s legal staff.

Teachers soon began hearing about the discussions from their principals and much that they heard worried them. They feared, for example, that they could no longer display photos of same-sex spouses in their classrooms, wear rainbow-colored pride lanyards to hold their school IDs and keep books in their classroom libraries that mentioned sexuality or gender identity, among other new prohibitions.

Some of their worries were unwarranted, district staff said this week, noting that family photos, for example, were fine in classrooms. The OCPS legal office posted a note of apology on its website.

“In hindsight, we caused more confusion than clarity and, for that, we apologize,” it read.

OCPS, which proclaimed June “LGBTQ+ Pride and Pulse Remembrance” month, said it remained committed to those values.

“OCPS wants each of our 206,000 students to be respected and feel safe at school,” read a statement sent by spokesperson Lorena Arias. “We have consistently recognized and supported our LGBTQ+ community in the past and have no less of a commitment going forward.”


Video: Guidance clears up some confusion in 'Don't Say Gay' law for OCPS teachers, students (WESH Orlando)

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But it also noted some school changes were recommended based on the new law. For example, in K-3 classrooms teachers likely should remove any “safe space” stickers “so that classroom instruction did not inadvertently occur on the prohibited content of sexual orientation or gender identity.”

These stickers, often acquired from Equality Florida, the LGBTQ advocacy group, typically show a map of Florida colored in a rainbow flag and meant to denote a welcoming place for LGBTQ people.

Books in K-3 classrooms, the district’s statement said, should “be reviewed for the prohibited content of sexual orientation or gender identity.” And K-3 teachers “were cautioned not to wear clothing that may elicit discussions that could be deemed classroom instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity,” it said.

“So they say only K-3 teachers aren’t allowed to be out publicly,” wrote Clinton McCracken, a longtime OCPS art teacher who becomes president of the teachers union this month, on the Facebook page of the Orange County Classroom Teachers Association. “That seems fair (not).”

McCracken was instrumental over the years in efforts to secure domestic partner benefits and anti-discrimination protections for OCPS’ LGBTQ employees.

Later he wrote that he was “encouraged” by the district’s updated guidance and hoped more clear guidelines would come soon.

Wendy Doromal, who just wrapped up her term as president of the union, said many upset teachers contacted her offices after the legal meetings last week, and they still want better guidance.

“Teachers want clear, written clarification. What is allowed and what isn’t allowed,” she said. “It needs to be soon because school starts in August.”

They also remain worried the new law “is really making our schools feel less welcoming to everyone,” Doromal added.

The Florida Department of Education has not yet provided school districts guidance on implementing the new law. OCPS said it would provide more direction to its schools once that information is sent from Tallahassee.

The state, however, provided some direction this week when in a legal filing it sought to dismiss the lawsuit challenging the law. The document, filed Monday, said that nothing in the law prohibited the display of family photos, even among same-sex couples, nor a teacher responding to a student’s mention of their same-sex parents.

It also said “students, parents, and even teachers will remain free to express themselves” as long as they do not provide instruction in school to young students on the prohibited topics.

The state is “allowing parents, no matter their views, to introduce those sensitive topics to their children as they see fit,” the document said. Instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity is allowed in older grades if “age appropriate,” but the education department must define that and has another year to do so.

The legal document claimed that most of the arguments against the law were inaccurate.

“Falsely dubbed by its opponents the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, HB 1557 is nothing of the sort,” it said, adding that the lawsuit brought by Equality Florida and others “is fear mongering at best.”

The document cited a parent’s complaint about the book “Call me Max,” about a transgender child, read aloud to a South Florida elementary school class, as evidence, among others, that instruction on these now prohibited topics had been taking place in the state’s public schools.

But Robinson, who taught for 12 years at University High School in Orange and served as the sponsor of its gay-straight alliance, doubted such incidents were widespread.

“Crisscross applesauce, one, two, three, all eyes on me. Today’s lesson is on gender identity,” she said. “That’s not happening because it’s not appropriate.”

The law was fueled by a “vocal minority” ignorant of what happens in public school classrooms, Robinson added. “Politicians who know better are weaponizing this ignorance to score political points.”

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©2022 Orlando Sentinel. Visit at orlandosentinel.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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