Metro Weekly

Florida District Rejects Sex Ed Textbooks for Violating “Don’t Say Gay” Law

Conservative groups and some parents objected to mentions of abortion, Plan B, vaccines, and gender identity in the textbooks.

Textbooks – Photo: Romina BM, via Unsplash.

A Florida school district has rejected sex education textbooks after the county’s school board rejected two proposed textbooks for allegedly violating the state’s “Parental Rights in Education” bill, dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill by opponents.

The Miami-Dade County Public Schools board voted 5-4 to reject the textbooks, leaving the fourth-largest school system in the country — which serves about 340,000 students in total — without an approved sex ed curriculum for middle and high school students before classes for the 2022-2023 kick off on Aug. 17.

School staff estimate that it could take between four and eight months for new books to be vetted and approved, meaning students could be anywhere from halfway to three-quarters of the way through the school year before receiving any instruction on sex education — despite the state requiring such instruction to occur in older grades, reports the Miami Herald.

The textbook in question, Comprehensive Health Skills, comes with two separate versions specifically designed for middle school and high school classes, and touches on topics such as nutrition, physical activity, and sexually transmitted diseases, which are required to be covered as part of the district’s Human Reproduction and Disease Education curriculum for grades six through 12. 

But socially conservative parents, backed by right-wing activist groups, filed 278 petitions challenging both versions of the textbooks, on the grounds that they violated the “Don’t Say Gay” law due to some of the content being “age-inappropriate.”

The law, which was signed by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis in March and partially implemented for primary grades on July 1, bars all instruction related to sexual orientation or gender identity in grades K-3 — which has nothing to do with the Miami-Dade textbooks.

The law also requires that instruction related to sex education, including (at least potentially) sexual orientation and gender identity be “age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate” for older students. However, the Florida Department of Education has not yet developed rules or guidance or even definitions of what constitutes “age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate” — and likely will not until June 30, 2023 — weeks after the 2022-2023 school year has ended, as Tallahassee-based public radio station WFSU reported back in June.

It is here that the Miami-Dade textbooks enter a gray area: with no official guidance from the Florida Department of Education, individual school districts appear to be setting their own rules about what sex education instruction looks like.

Because Miami-Dade’s sex education curriculum isn’t limited to a single class, but is incorporated in portions of the district’s science and personal fitness classes, individual teachers must navigate and balance, with little assistance or guidance, between their obligation to comply with state educational requirements and not offending parents with socially conservative views who may object to the inclusion of certain topics in the curriculum.

After the 278 petitions were circulated objecting to the materials, Miami-Dade Superintendent José Dotres selecting a hearing officer to conduct a public hearing on June 8 to review the textbooks and address the concerns voiced by those who signed the petitions. That hearing officer ultimately recommended approving the textbooks.

But some parents say the lessons contained in the textbooks go far beyond what the state requires for sex education instruction and usurps parents’ rights to determine what their children should be taught in schools.

Even though parents in Miami-Dade County, and throughout Florida, are allowed to exempt their children from certain classes or particular lessons — to which they may have moral or religious objections — by “opting out” of such instruction, groups like County Citizens Defending Freedom objected to the textbooks for various reasons, such as defining what an abortion is, or mentioning the existence of emergency contraceptives like the Plan B pill.

Comprehensive Health Skills textbook cover – Photo: The Goodheart-Willcox Company, Inc.

Alex Serrano, the county director for County Citizens Defending Freedom, alleged that some of the content of the textbooks was either inappropriate or “not scientifically factual,” such as vaccinations being the only proven method to prevent viral diseases.

Still other parents claimed that the books teach students there are “nine genders,” referring to a page describing a list of gender identities such as androgenous, cisgender, nonbinary, and transgender, although the school board had already previously removed the chapter, titled “Understanding Sexuality,” from the textbooks in question back in April.

“Teachers that will be providing this material to children, which is illegal in the state of Florida, and the board that votes to adopt this, in the end — the country, the state and your community, will consider all of you groomers,” speaker Lourdes Galban told the school board during the public comment at last Wednesday’s meeting, invoking the new favorite “buzzword” of Republican politicians and conservative activists who say any instruction or even passing reference to LGBTQ-related topics is an attempt to indoctrinate children.

Even though 38 of the 42 people who spoke at Wednesday’s meeting asked the board to adopt the hearing officer’s recommendation and allow the textbooks to be used, the board members who voted to reject them claimed that the meeting was not representative of community sentiment, claiming they received a flood of emails from people opposed to the content. Still other board members felt that the material objected to by conservative groups was not “age-appropriate.”

School Board Vice Chair Steve Gallon III noted that parents can opt their children out of sex education lessons if they object to the content, but argued that by banning the textbooks, the board was allowing a minority of parents with personal objections to dictate what all students are taught.

“Our current…process defends parents and their children who do not want to be exposed to this,” he said. “But we cannot deny parents who want to have access for their children to this critically important information.”

That sentiment was echoed by some other parents who spoke at Wednesday’s meeting. 

“Parents who wish to limit their children’s information about reproductive health have always had the option to opt out,” speaker Gina Vinueza told the board, according to Politico. “The proposed approval of the textbooks today would not take that choice away from them. However, if the board does not approve the textbooks, they will be taking away the rights of everyone to public ed that is based on facts and science.”

Other supporters of keeping the textbooks argued that the textbooks were needed to provide students — some of whom are already sexually active — with accurate information about their health, their bodies, the consequences of sex, and navigating issues related to consent, which relates to identifying instances of sexual assault.

“I’m deeply disappointed by today’s decision. I hoped that Miami’s School Board would step up to protect youth in times of crisis,” Kat Duesterhaus, a board member of Florida NOW and Miami Coalition to Advance Racial Equity, told the Herald. “We need to equip youth with the ability to navigate their own bodies and consensual situations. We’re leaving them ill equipped to have agency of their sexuality and bodies.”

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