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Friday, June 14, 2024

“Don’t Say Period”: law restricting K-12 reproductive and sexual health instruction takes effect

Concerned community members share thoughts on potential impacts

Roughly a month before schools go back in session, a new law restricting K-12 sexual and health education looms over the heads of school staff, students and parents. 

As an expansion of last year’s controversial “Don’t Say Gay” law, House Bill 1069 took effect July 1. The sweeping legislation limits K-12 classroom instruction on various topics like reproductive health and gender identity, prohibits schools from enforcing policies requiring the usage of individuals’ preferred pronouns and extends classroom material-challenging powers for parents. 

Also dubbed the “Don’t Say Period” law, the legislation most notably bars instruction on human sexuality, sexually transmitted diseases and other related subjects, including menstruation, before sixth grade. 

Alachua County public school staff, teenagers and activists are concerned about how the law will impact the education and well-being of K-12 students. 

Supervisor of Health Services at Alachua County Public Schools, Johnelly Green, worries the law will worsen the stigma surrounding menstruation as children increasingly start their periods at younger ages, she said.

Research suggests puberty begins approximately three months earlier each decade for children since the 1970s. The average age a girl starts their period hovers around 12.

“They're going to think that their body is not normal because they won't be able to talk to an adult about it,” she said. “I think the more transparent we can be, the better it is for them.”

To comply with the law, Alachua County Public School nurses will call a child’s parents if a student below sixth grade arrives at the nurses’ office with questions about topics like menstruation, Green said. 

Students left with unanswered questions will most likely turn to their peers, which isn't always safe, Green said.

“Unfortunately, [school staff is] going to be limited as to sharing our expertise with these girls who need it,” she said. “So they're gonna hear their peers telling them ‘Oh, you're not normal. There's something wrong with you.’”

While Green hopes HB 1069 inspires parents to initiate conversations about menstruation with their children, she said she predicts the legislation will most likely elicit conflict between Florida parents and schools. 

Teenagers across Alachua County fear the effects of the law as well.

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Isana Schroder, an 18-year-old recent graduate of F. W. Buchholz High School and incoming UF political science freshman, has been a peer health educator for Planned Parenthood’s Leaders Igniting a Generation of Healthy Teens initiative since 2020. 

The LIGHT program seeks to train and supply teenagers with reproductive and sexual health knowledge so they can help support their peers. 

The extent of the sexual and reproductive health education Schroder received in school before joining the LIGHT program was a short, incomprehensive fourth-grade unit on human growth and development, she said. 

For the 2019-2020 school year, only 25.1% of Florida secondary schools provided students with instruction on all 22 critical sexual health education topics in a required course for sixth, seventh or eighth grade. 

Schroder expects HB 1069 to worsen the already poor quality of education K-12 students receive on reproductive and sexual health, she said.

"More people are going to have to take sexual health education back into their own hands for their children and themselves because the state of Florida isn't providing it," she said.

K-12 students must learn about topics like sexually transmitted diseases and birth control methods so they can make well-informed decisions for their bodies, she said. 

“Sex education should be both medically accurate and developmentally appropriate,” she said. “Moving sex education up to sixth grade, limiting the ability to talk about it and limiting the materials you use to talk about it cannot have a positive outcome.”

Navya Goyal, a 14-year-old incoming freshman at Gainesville High School, volunteers with the Alachua County Chapter of Days for Girls International. The organization aims to improve access to menstrual hygiene resources worldwide. 

Having started her period in fifth grade, Goyal opposes HB 1069 because she believes schools should serve as a safe haven for students to learn how their bodies function, she said.

“Not everyone has the parental guidance that they need at home to be able to learn and understand what periods are and manage them properly,” she said. 

Goyal overcame the shame she previously felt about her period by participating in informative discussions about menstruation with Days for Girls International staff and volunteers. 

Everyone starting their periods should have similar in-depth conversations, she said.

“I've learned that it's okay to talk about [menstruation] with anybody as long as you're comfortable,” she said. “Many of us don't really talk about it and think it should be kept a secret.”

Local activists are also anxious about HB 1069’s provision banning schools from enforcing policies that require the usage of a student’s preferred pronouns. 

Elizabeth Husband, an 80-year-old former elementary school counselor, is the secretary for the Gainesville chapter of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays. Husband also sits on PFLAG’s Inclusive Schools Committee, which strives to advocate for LGBTQ rights in Alachua County Public Schools.

Husband worries the law will encourage school staff to discriminate against LGBTQ students and promote self-censorship. 

Her 14-year-old granddaughter, who goes to school in Duval County, told Husband her teachers stopped asking students about their preferred pronouns after the bill was introduced. 

“But they can say, ‘If you have something that you'd like me to know about you write it down and give it to me,’ and kids understand that,” she said. 

Various studies have found that using a child’s preferred pronouns has positive effects on their mental health, Husband said. 

“LGBTQ students, especially transgender students have a much higher rate of suicide and suicidal ideation,” she said. “Having affirming adults in their lives reduces that risk considerably.”

Although the law allows school staff to disregard students' preferred pronouns, Husband said it has brought LGBTQ students and supportive teachers closer together.

“Teachers are going to find a way to be supportive of their students, even if they have to be a little more indirect about it,” she said. 

Contact Amanda at Follow her on Twitter @amandasfriedman.

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Amanda Friedman

Amanda Friedman is a senior journalism major and the Enterprise Editor at The Alligator. She previously wrote for the Avenue, Metro and University desks. When she isn't reporting, she loves watching coming-of-age films and listening to Ariana Grande. 

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