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Florida school districts struggle to implement parental rights law without substantial guidance

Patrick Sternad
WFSU Public Media

School districts across Florida are working to implement a new state law that bans classroom instruction on sexual identity and gender orientation in grades K-3 and potentially in other grades as well. But they’re facing a lack of clarity on how to put policies in place to comply with the new mandate.

Sail High School graduate Alex Stanwood says a teacher stopped using their preferred pronouns after Governor Ron DeSantis signed the parental rights bill, dubbed the "Don’t Say Gay" bill by its critics, into law in March.

Stanwood, who is transgender, says the teacher's decision, hurt.

“It made me feel like I didn’t exactly belong anymore," Stanwood said. "Like I wasn’t accepted anymore. But before this bill, I was absolutely accepted.”

The law prohibits instruction on gender identity or sexual orientation in primary school and in other grades if the instruction is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate. The Florida Department of Education is supposed to create those standards and it has a year to do so. School districts must notify parents if a student requests to use different names or pronouns at school regardless of the student’s wishes. Parents can sue the school districts over violations or ask that a special magistrate resolve their complaint.

DOE has scheduled a workshop for later this month to develop a rule for how the special magistrate process will work. But school districts are mostly on their own for now in trying to implement the new law.

Stanwood says the "Don’t Say Gay" law and the Stop Woke Act, which limits how race-related issues can be taught in schools and in workplace training, negatively impacted the end of the senior year.

Teachers, they say, wouldn't discuss the bill out of fear they could be sued.

“I was angry," Stanwood said. "We were just supposed to go to class like nothing happened when there was a lot going on.”

Leon County School District Superintendent Rocky Hanna says the law’s vague language has a lot of teachers worried they could be sued for saying the wrong thing.

"They don’t know what can they say, what can’t they say. If I make a child feel bad are they going to sue me? Am I protected if they sue me? I don’t make a lot of money, are they coming after my family? We already have a teacher shortage. We have a teacher shortage crisis. This is only going to exacerbate that situation," Hanna said.

Despite the legal peril, Hanna says he told his staff to just be themselves when instructing them on implementing the new parental rights law.

“Our teachers aren’t influencing children or indoctrinating children," he said. "That’s not their job. Their job is to first and foremost protect children from harm and then to teach the standards set forth by the state of Florida. Period. Period. All this other rhetoric, it’s just nonsense because those things aren’t happening.”

But that won’t be the path every one of the 67 school districts in the state decides to take.

Former North Florida Senator Bill Montford heads the Florida Association of District Superintendents. He says statewide consistency without more robust guidance from the state will be a challenge.

“There’s no doubt about it, [it's] an issue that is this sensitive," he said. "We’ve got to jump on this really, really quick and make sure that we implement and follow the intent of the legislation and do it in a[s] timely [a] manner as we can.”

Civil rights groups have filed a lawsuit challenging the new law. But for now, school districts are preparing to put new policies in place once the law takes effect next month.

Copyright 2022 WFSU. To see more, visit WFSU.

Sarah Mueller is the first recipient of the WFSU Media Capitol Reporting Fellowship. She’ll be covering the 2017 Florida legislative session and recently earned her master’s degree in Public Affairs Reporting at the University of Illinois Springfield. Sarah was part of the Illinois Statehouse press corps as an intern for NPR Illinois in 2016. When not working, she enjoys playing her yellow lab, watching documentaries and reading memoirs.
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