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South Florida school districts rollback LGBTQ policies under state pressure

A man wears a rainbow cape during a memorial vigil for the victims of Orlando's Pulse nightclub shooting Thursday in San Antonio.
Eric Gay
A man wears a rainbow cape during a memorial vigil in San Antonio for the victims of Orlando's Pulse nightclub shooting.

South Florida school districts have started to roll back policies and resources that support LGBTQ students on the back of the "Don't Say Gay" law, state officials confirmed this week.

Administrators at the Florida Department of Education (DOE) say the local rules may be illegal, under new state laws that restrict how identity can be discussed in the classroom and require parental notification of education services.

Under federal case law, students have a right to privacy when it comes to their sexual orientation and gender identity — to not be outed, even to their parents. That was outlined in student support guides used in the Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach County school districts.

But state officials now say those guides are no longer in use, after DOE staff began scrutinizing the documents and other local policies on supporting LGBTQ students.

The support guides include staff directives, such as to never out a student without their consent. They also outline federal, state and local anti-discrimination protections and list community resources and statistics on the mental health of queer students. Studies show LGBTQ young people are much more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers.

The 2021 guide for the School District of Palm Beach County, which is over 100 pages long, cites county-level statistics from the CDC’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey showing that in 2019, 50.7% of students who identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual in the county reported feeling sad or hopeless and 35.9% seriously considered suicide.

“These statistics validate the need for the Guide. Let there be no doubt — affirming education can save lives when it comes to LGBTQ+ youth,” the guide reads. “Many face unique challenges based on social stigma and environmental stressors that may stem from home, school, or both.”

Update on districts' efforts to amend policies

DOE staff sent letters to 10 local districts citing policies and procedures that the department suspects are not in compliance with state law, including the support guides and rules allowing transgender students to use their preferred names and restrooms that align with their gender identity.

During a meeting of the Florida Board of Education on Wednesday, staff gave an update on districts’ efforts to amend the policies.

Superintendent Vickie Cartwright speaks to reporters after the school board voted to rescind her firing on Dec.13. Board Chair Lori Alhadeff (left) voted to keep Cartwright fired.
Gerard Albert III
Superintendent Vickie Cartwright speaks to reporters after a school board meeting on Dec.13.

According to DOE Senior Chancellor Jacob Oliva, the Miami-Dade and Palm Beach County school districts have already taken steps to amend some of their policies and procedures. The Broward County school board is slated to revise their policies by March 31, 2023.

“My goal at this point in time, in working with general counsel and well as staff, is to continue to work on this as far as policymaking is concerned, as expeditiously as possible,” said Broward schools Superintendent Vickie Cartwright. “We continue to look forward to working alongside DOE related to any of the concerns.”

Board Chair Tom Grady singled out Broward in warning districts to revise their policies as quickly as possible — saying that while the rules are on the books, parents can sue the districts under the Parental Rights in Education law, which critics call the “Don’t Say Gay” law.

According to reporting by the Tampa Bay Times, state lawmakers wrote the law with the goal of striking down policies and practices like the student support guides.

“The purpose of this exercise is to help the districts get into compliance,” Grady said. “It’s not our obligation for them to be in compliance. It is their obligation to be in compliance and it is their obligation to follow the law.”

Advocates say practices create a safe environment

Advocates for the policies and practices say they help create a safe environment where all students can be free from discrimination.

“We feel this guide is a critical tool at a critical time. All young people — including those who are LGBTQ+ — have the right to feel safe and secure in the schools they attend," reads the guide for Palm Beach County schools. "Students who feel accepted at school are more highly motivated, engaged in learning, and committed to achieving the best possible education."

In an interview with WLRN in July about the role of the support guides, Brandon Wolf, the press secretary for LGBTQ advocacy organization Equality Florida said affirming vulnerable students can change lives.

“The goal of providing guidelines like the critical support guide has always been to help improve the mental and physical health outcomes of LGBTQ young people,” Wolf said. “Creating affirming spaces, ensuring that all students are respected and protected, those are life-saving policies.”

If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 or the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741.

Kate Payne is WLRN's Education Reporter. Reach her at kpayne@wlrnnews.org
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