ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. — A little more than a month before the new school year begins, some school district administrators, teachers and parents have begun wrangling over the possible impacts of Florida’s new Parental Rights in Education law, which critics have nicknamed the “Don’t Say Gay” law.
From the beginning, the law’s text was widely considered to be vague, even after lawmakers tightened up some of the most controversial sections. Its supporters said what remained gave parents a defined say in their child’s upbringing by keeping talk of gender and sexuality out of elementary school classrooms, and ensuring they were notified about mental and emotional health concerns.
“I know how important it is to empower parents in this relationship. I want to encourage parents across Florida to own it,” Republican Sen. Dennis Baxley said after the law passed back in the spring.
Critics said the actual effect of the law would marginalize LGBTQ students, teachers and families by forcing schools to pretend homosexual relationships don’t exist.
While some parts of the law are clear, there remains a lot open to interpretation, including actions that could run afoul of the prohibitions against teaching about gender in a classroom.
During seminars earlier this month, Orange County Public Schools attorneys and school administrators attempted to sort through scenarios that could cause a teacher to inadvertently risk his or her license. The result led to principals telling their teachers to avoid wearing rainbow colors to school or putting up pictures of their same-sex partners on their desk, leaders of the teacher’s association claimed.
The reports raised alarm bells with some parents and teachers Tuesday.
“Sometimes I am the first person that they ever tell, even before their friends,” 16-year veteran high school teacher Rachel Chapman said. “Teachers can help fit that little puzzle piece between home life and personal life. We can give them the confidence to talk to their parents.”
Chapman went on to say that the law risks putting a barrier between students and teachers, making it impossible for them to connect emotionally and educationally.
“We create that wall with us and the students [and] we’ve lost those kids,” she explained.
OCPS leaders spent a portion of the day attempting to calm fears, releasing a statement to the teacher’s association and public that they would continue to support LGBTQ+ youth and adults alike.
The language was similar to a statement given to WFTV Monday night, which said the discussions were preliminary.
“Any perception that the district has firm guidelines in place based on new legislation is inaccurate,” officials wrote. “We want to clear up any misunderstandings about our positions. Formal guidelines will be given to schools when the Florida Department of Education provides further guidance.”
More privately, though, officials expressed frustrations that the state Department of Education was not offering any clarity about how teachers should behave in tricky situations. They said multiple requests starting in the spring for additional information and insight had not been returned, despite the potentially high stakes of the new law.
WFTV emailed some of the scenarios in question to Department of Education attorneys, as well as six Republican co-sponsors of the law, asking if each scenario ran afoul of the text, or in the legislators’ cases, the intended spirit of what they voted for.
None of the seven emails were answered as of Tuesday night, continuing the confusion within the district.
“[Rainbow flags are] just a decoration, and I don’t think that’s enough,” Chapman said. “We need more guidance from Orange County about what else we’re able to do.”
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