‘Don’t Say Gay’ Law Brings Unease and Confusion to Florida Schools

TULLASSIE, Florida (AFP) — Some Florida schools have moved library books and discussed changing textbooks in response to what law critics call “Don’t Say Like Me” — and some teachers fear family photos on their desks may cause them problems.

As students return from summer vacation, teachers adjust cautiously and wait to see how the new law governing lessons on gender and sexual orientation will be interpreted and enforced.

The new law, endorsed by Florida Republican Governor Ron DeSantis, bans lessons on sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through third grade as well as subjects that are not considered age-appropriate. Most teachers don’t expect a major change in lesson plans—one of the main reasons critics have cited for saying the law is unnecessary is that teachers don’t cover such topics in the early grades anyway.

But some worry that it sets a tone that will leave LGBTQ teachers and children feeling ostracized.

“The messages of this law are appalling. It’s toxic and discriminatory,” said Gretchen Robinson, a lesbian high school teacher in Orange County. “It’s very clear that it targets LGBTQ students, and ‘others’ of them, and that’s not good.”

Watch: How Florida’s ‘Don’t Say Gay’ Law Regulates School Lessons About Sex and Sexual Orientation

Workshops on the law that the legal team held in her school district over the summer caused confusion. Some employees said they were told that teachers in kindergarten through third grade could not display pride flags or pictures of their same-sex spouses. The district later said the law only applies to classroom instruction and that photos are allowed. I apologize for the misdirection with a hypothetical discussion.

Robinson said schools in her area distributed rainbow cords and included stickers, but she wasn’t sure if teachers would continue to wear or display them. She is also concerned that some teachers will “err on the side of caution and drop things” during lessons.

The law attracted widespread attention and condemnation earlier this year when it made its way through the Republican-controlled statehouse. Critics have dubbed it “Don’t Say Like Me”, although it does not contain any prohibitions on specific statements and does not prohibit material relating to sexual orientation that is considered age-appropriate for grades 4 and above.

Opponents say the law would stifle debate in the class, arguing that it does not make clear what would be considered inappropriate. It also creates an enforcement mechanism that calls on parents to file lawsuits against districts, which could escalate tensions between governors and school officials.

The controversy in Florida reflects a debate going on across the country, with battles in school boards and state legislatures over what and how children learn about race, gender, sexual orientation, and American history. DeSantis and other Republicans have argued that parents should be the ones to control the education of their children’s sexual orientation and gender identity.

DeSantis recently addressed some of the concerns in an unrelated press conference, saying, “You know I hear some people saying, ‘Wow, school is coming. But, you know, Florida, they have parental rights to education, they’ve banned CRT (Critical Race Theory), all of that stuff. People, how are they going to know what they know or something else?

“And I’m just thinking of myself, you know, you teach reading, math, science, basic stuff. And you don’t teach gender ideology, CRT, sexuality in elementary school. It’s not hard to figure out and it’s not hard to understand.”

Educators say the state Department of Education has yet to clearly explain how the law will be enforced. In June, the agency issued a memorandum about the law to school district administrators, but it mostly contained a copy and pasting of the legislative text. The agency did not immediately respond with an email seeking comment from the Associated Press.

Read more: LGBTQ+ parents fear their kids will have to hide their families in school under Florida’s ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill

“The guidance we give people is that it’s confusing and we don’t know how it will be interpreted. But what we can do is take care of the children and provide the quality learning environment that they deserve,” said Andrew Spar, president of the Florida Education Consortium.

The law has been at the center of debate over sex education subjects in Miami-Dade County, which has the largest school system in the state. Some school board members said the new textbooks showed pictures of condoms, diaphragms, and intrauterine devices that were too graphic for middle school students.

When school officials sought council approval for new textbooks in April, after the law was passed, officials said they would remove chapters covering gender identity and gender. Board members approved the online textbooks, but reversed their decision last month after coming under public pressure. The council reversed itself again last week to adopt textbooks but not chapters on sexuality and gender identity.

In Palm Beach County, school officials say they have reviewed the books and moved only a handful of them to a separate section that children in third grade and below cannot access.

Across school districts, teachers said they are concerned about parents filing complaints about perceived abuse while there is still a lot of clarity around the new law.

Norma Schwartz, a mother of a fifth-grader and an eighth-grader at Miami-Dade Schools, said the law could cause some students, families and teachers to feel targeted.

“It goes against our mission and vision, to empower all children, not make them feel like they don’t belong,” said Schwartz, who is part of Miami-Dade County Council, which opposed the law. “In terms of parental rights, we are the Parent-Teacher Association. We have been around for 100 years. We want parental involvement, we want parent empowerment.”

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