At Gainesville High School, students could choose to use whichever bathroom best aligned with their gender identity. But Katherine Canev, 18, fears this and other rules contributing to an LGBTQ-friendly climate might change.
“I know that in my school there are safe people and safe teachers and safe counselors,” said Canev, a senior who identifies as pansexual. “But I can't say that for every school, which worries me.”
In mid-November, Alachua County Public School and other districts in the state received instruction from the Florida Board of Education to cease using LGBTQ support guides because some of the policies were inconsistent with the state’s Parental Rights in Education Act — a controversial law some critics dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill.
After the school board removed the guide from its website in a Dec. 14 meeting, some students were concerned. Without a standard response to LGBTQ issues, students and faculty could be at risk, Canev said.
“I think that we should prioritize the safety of our teachers and the safety of our students over this overreach of government,” she said.
Alachua was one of 10 counties to appear before the Florida Department of Education for similar support guides; the other districts included Brevard, Broward, Duval, Florida School for the Deaf and Blind, Hillsborough, Indian River, Leon, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach.
The district’s support guide, 25 pages in length, includes information on establishing school chapters of the Gay-Straight Alliance, examples of common anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and instruction on bathroom use for transgender students and staff.
While national laws such as Title IX and FERPA outlaw discrimination for students based on sexuality, FDOE doesn’t have similar statewide support guides.
The ACPS support guide was developed with input from organizations like Equality Florida, the Safe Schools initiative and other LGBTQ groups, as well as a legal team. It was adopted by the School Board in December 2021.
But Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the Parental Rights in Education bill into law last March, which requires school boards to notify parents of changes in material or curriculum and specifically addresses sexual and LGBTQ education.
Superintendent Shane Andrew received a letter from the FDOE on Nov. 18 that highlighted policies in the guide such as preferred gender and pronoun usage and restroom and locker room policies as inconsistent with the law.
FDOE Senior Chancellor Jacob Oliva pointed out rule 6A-10.086 of the FDOE guidance on the law requiring parental notification of any change in bathroom or locker room designation.
“Florida parents have a right to be fully informed of the education and the educational services being provided to their students,” Oliva wrote.
The listed violations in the letter weren’t exhaustive, ACPS spokesperson Jackie Johnson said, and the district is unclear on the full extent of the state’s complaints.
The guide provided standardized ways to handle decisions related to the LGBTQ community, such as disciplinary measures against LGBTQ based discrimination or how to respond to a student’s coming out, said GHS senior Colleen Anderson, 17.
While parents want to and should be involved with issues relating to gender and sexuality, Anderson said, the district’s priority should be providing a safe environment for students to express ideas about gender and sexuality.
“Removing it will allow teachers to make the decisions on their own,” she said. “It won't be as reliable, making everybody feel a little bit less comfortable.”
The district will reconvene in a February workshop to discuss and implement a replacement.
But with a lack of clarity on what was wrong with the last guide and conflicting state and federal guidelines, creating a new one will be difficult, said Sarah Rockwell, a newly elected school board member.
Members will develop this replacement with the help of experts and the public. Rockwell would like the same expert input as the original guide, she said.
“Making sure we meet the requirements of all those laws will be very challenging,” she said. “It’s going to create more work for school counselors, teachers and administrators.”
Brittany Link, a spokesperson for statewide LGBTQ advocacy group Equality Florida, lauded the efforts of ACPS to follow all relevant laws while maintaining a commitment to the LGBTQ community in an email.
Support guides are crucial for protecting LGBTQ youth and faculty, she said.
“ACPS has a strong record of protecting and affirming LGBTQ students,” Link said. “Parents of LGBTQ youth deserve to know that when their child goes to school they will be treated with dignity and respect and that they are safe from harassment and violence."
At the Dec. 14 meeting, Andrew told the state board ACPS will work on revisions to present a new draft of the guide on Feb. 8.
Contact Peyton Harris at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @peytonlharris.
Peyton Harris is a first-year English major and the News Assistant for The Alligator. She is also a member of Zeta Tau Alpha and spends her free time re-listening to Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers and binging Criminal Minds.