As the Florida legislature pushes bills that would ban discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity in the classroom, Gainesville students and teachers push back.
The ‘Don’t Say Gay’ companion bills, HB1557/SB1834, are circulating through the Florida legislature. The pair of bills would limit discussions about LGBTQ+ and transgender identities “in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students.”
The measures are sponsored by Rep. Joe Harding, R-Ocala, and Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Lady Lake.
The representatives are framing the legislation as a restoration in parents’ autonomy to make decisions about the upbringing of their children.
“This bill will help us focus on the priority that our students belong to families and that they are not wards of the state,” Baxley wrote in an email. “Parents should decide what is age-appropriate content for their children.”
Harding didn’t respond to The Alligator’s request for comment by email and phone in time for publication.
The bills target primary grade levels, grades K-3, wrote Matt McClain, Senator Baxley’s senior legislative assistant, in an email.
The state bill is part of a larger question at the national level about who controls curriculum in classrooms, whether that be parents, lawmakers or teachers.
“The lawmakers in Tallahassee are no longer going to defer to the judgement of educators, who we would hope would be experts in teaching,” said Clay Calvert, a UF law professor specializing in communications law and freedom of speech.
Public school students have First Amendment rights to free speech, Calvert said, though they are not absolute. The landmark Supreme Court case Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District established the substantial disruption test, which sets the criteria to determine whether a public school official is justified in suppressing a student’s speech.
If a teacher stifles a conversation raised by a student about their sexual orientation and identity, the student can sue, and the educator must prove that speech would have caused a substantial and material disruption of the academic atmosphere, Calvert said.
“That will be hard to do,” he added. “It’s problematic.”
Alachua County’s House and Senate representatives, Rep. Robert "Chuck" Brannan, R-Lake City, and Sen. Keith Perry, R-Gainesville, didn’t respond to The Alligator’s request for comment in time for publication.
Some Alachua County public elementary school teachers like Danielle Engelhorn, a teacher at Carolyn Beatrice Parker Elementary, have expressed their discomfort with shutting down important conversations about students’ sexual identity.
“We’re here to provide a safe place for kids to learn,” Englehorn said. “We can’t do that if we’re prevented from being able to address our students’ needs.”
Preventing teachers from discussing sexual orientation will not prevent students from asking questions about it, and it will not stop bullying, she added.
If the bill is signed into law, it may also lead to the banning of lessons on LGBTQ+ oppression and history, which Carolyn Beatrice Parker Elementary teacher Stephanie Walker said repeals her autonomy over her classroom.
“If we don’t talk about something, then we don’t learn to accept it,” Walker said. “If it’s not talked about, then we’ll go back to the point where kids are afraid to say who they are.”
Walker strives to make her classroom a safe space for every child, so her classroom’s walls are adorned with student-made pride posters and pictures.
As a mother of two LGBTQ+ young adults who came out in middle school, she fears for a state that may ban the teaching of tolerance and respect and a childhood in which kids must conceal their identity.
Reminded of the struggles her own children endured, Walker worries the bill will stifle students’ self-expression and engender mental illness.
The Trevor Project, the world’s largest organization providing crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to LGBTQ+ adolescents, is also concerned about the damage the bill may induce on LGBTQ+ youths’ mental health.
LQBTQ+ students deserve their history to be reflected in their education, like their peers, spokesperson Sam Ames said in a statement.
LGBTQ+ youth who learned about LGBTQ+ history and issues in school had 23% lower odds of reporting a sucicide attempt in the past year, according to The Trevor Project’s research.
The bill would also require district school boards to adopt procedures for notifying parents if teachers notice a change in a student’s “mental, emotional, or physical health or well-being.” It mandates school district personnel to “encourage a student to discuss issues relating to his or her well-being with his or her parent.”
Damon Veras, a 21-year-old UF political science junior and UF LGBTQ+ Advisory Committee member, said this measure is a way of outing young children to their parents.
The committee acts as a forum to address concerns of homophobia and transphobia on campus and assesses the quality of life of UF’s LGBTQ+ students and staff, recommending programs, policies and services to enhance their well-being, according to its website.
The committee is carefully drafting the letter to signify the group does not support the legislation and persuade the university to take an official stance, perhaps enlisting UF lobbyists. Veras calls upon students to oppose the bill on a smaller scale.
“I want to encourage anyone who has the capacity and ability to do so, to call their representatives and tell them to vote ‘no’ on these bills,” he said.
Although UF isn’t a primary school and therefore isn’t directly impacted by the bill, the university governs P. K. Yonge Developmental Research School, a K-12 public school in Gainesville.
The Alachua County School Board hasn’t yet discussed the bill, and therefore it has not taken a formal stance on it, ACPS spokesperson Jackie Johnson wrote in an email.
“Depending on how it would be implemented if it does become law, obviously there is concern that this could have a chilling effect on speech and expression in the classroom,” she wrote. “The devil is often in the details.”
HB1557 was passed from the Education & Employment Committee to the Judiciary Committee in the House Jan. 25. SB1834 has been added to the agenda in its first Senate committee, the Education Committee, to be discussed on Tuesday. As the public debate surrounding this bill intensifies, debate in the Florida legislature continues.
Contact Carissa at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @carissaallenn.
Carissa Allen is a third-year journalism and political science double major. She is excited to continue her work on the Metro desk this semester as the East Gainesville Reporter. In her free time, you can find her scuba diving, working out or listening to a podcast.