Metro Weekly

Florida to Expand “Don’t Say Gay” Law to Cover All Grades

The State Board of Education is pushing a "professional conduct" rule to prohibit teachers from mentioning LGBTQ-related topics in class.

School classroom – Photo: Kohji Asakawa, via Pixabay

Next month, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s administration plans to expand the state’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill to apply to all grades from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade.

Under a proposed State Board of Education rule governing “professional conduct,” scheduled to be voted upon on April 19, teachers in grades 4-12 would be banned from “intentionally provid[ing] classroom instruction” on sexual orientation or gender identity.

The exception would be cases where such instruction is required by state academic standards or is part of a reproductive health course — provided, of course, that parents who object to broaching such content can choose to have them “opt-out” of the lessons.

Teachers found to be in violation of the new rule could face suspension or have their teaching licenses revoked.

Under existing guidelines for professional conduct, educators in Florida are already prohibited from delaying parental notification or involvement in decisions affecting a student’s mental, emotional, or physical health or well-being — except in rare cases where a teacher believes such disclosures may lead to abuse.

The State Board of Education approved a similar prohibition for teachers in grades K-3 last year, in order to bring the guidelines for professional conduct in line with the state’s “Parental Rights in Education” law, also known as the “Don’t Say Gay” law.

The current version of the law bars teachers in grades K-3 from providing instruction on LGBTQ-related issues, and teachers in fourth grade and above may only broach such topics in a manner that is “age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate.”

Republican lawmakers previously proposed legislation this year seeking to expand the to apply to all students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade, after previously floating the idea of expanding the law’s upper limit to cover up through sixth grade.

Proponents of the expansion argue that parents have the right to determine whether and when their children learn about potentially sensitive topics, and should not have to worry that their children may be receiving instruction on, or being exposed to, topics that they believe are age-inappropriate.

The new rule, which circumvents the legislature’s efforts, was green-lighted by Education Commissioner Manny Diaz, a DeSantis appointee and staunch defender of the existing “Don’t Say Gay” law, according to the Orlando Sentinel.

The State Board of Education — filled with appointees of DeSantis and former Republican Gov. Rick Scott — will have to officially approve the rule in order for it to take effect, although the proposed change is expected to meet little resistance. The board is currently accepting public comments on the proposed rule.

Opponents of the “Don’t Say Gay” law argued, at the time of its passage, that the law would eventually censor student and teacher speech, and that the aim of the legislation was to effectively prohibit LGBTQ topics from ever being broached, even tangentially, in any school environment.

Various school boards and individual schools have cracked down on statements or signs of support for LGBTQ identity since the law passed.

Last year, the Miami-Dade County School Board rejected a resolution recognizing October as LGBTQ History Month.

Teachers in Orange County were told to remove any rainbow-flag “safe space” stickers or other symbols that could be interpreted as sending a pro-LGBTQ message from their classrooms. Districts throughout the state censored or removed books from shelves that were deemed to have “obscene” or “sexually explicit” material, including a number of LGBTQ titles or works by LGBTQ authors.

Earlier this year, the Lake County school district banned And Tango Makes Three, a picture book based on the true story of two male penguins at the Central Park Zoo who incubated and hatched a fertilized egg, and then raised the chick born from it, with officials citing the “Don’t Say Gay” law as justification.

The state legislature could still opt to pass an expansion of the “Don’t Say Gay” law this cycle, which would make the restrictions on teacher conduct more difficult to repeal should a future gubernatorial administration that is more LGBTQ-accepting seek to reverse the administrative rule. 

Equality Florida, the state’s largest LGBTQ advocacy group, has alleged that the DeSantis administration always intended to expand the law as part of a larger movement to use “every lever of government to censor conversations about LGBTQ people,” the group’s spokesman, Brandon Wolf, told the Sentinel.

Equality Florida will speak against the proposed rule when the State Board of Education meets next month, even though efforts to block the rule may ultimately prove futile.

“After a year’s worth of gaslighting and assurances that the ‘Don’t Say LGBTQ’ law was narrowly focused, the DeSantis administration is now saying the quiet part out loud: they believe that it is never appropriate to acknowledge the existence of LGBTQ people, or our contributions to society, in schools,” Equality Florida said in a statement. 

“This time, the governor is placing the crosshairs squarely on individual educators, threatening their professional licenses for making mention of the LGBTQ community in any grade level. The Board of Education’s proposed rule would see more books with LGBTQ characters ripped from school shelves, more discussion of diverse families muzzled, and further character assassination of hardworking teachers in Florida,” the organization’s statement continued.

Equality Florida also alleged that the DeSantis administration, and its Republican allies, have pushed for the law’s expansion as part of a larger “culture war” against so-called “woke” concepts that are opposed by Republican voters as the governor mulls a potential 2024 White House bid.

“Free states don’t ban books. Free states don’t censor history. Free states don’t copy/paste their political agendas from the likes of Vladimir Putin,” Equality Florida added. “This proposed rule is yet more government power being perverted to serve Ron DeSantis’s desperation to run for President. And its consequences will weigh most heavily on those who have already been forced to bear the brunt of his insatiable lust for power.”

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