TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Florida is back in the national spotlight this week as lawmakers send a proposal that opponents have dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill closer to Gov. Ron DeSantis’ desk.
Officially named the Parental Rights in Education bill, the proposal seeks to energize conservative parents who have taken a new interest in the state’s teaching curriculum and who have been calling for more control and transparency over what their children learn in the classroom.
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At face value, it gives parents more access to information about their children’s mental and emotional health and prevents schools from teaching many students about sexual orientation and gender identity.
However, opponents have noted the law is extremely vague and opens districts up to an array of lawsuits from parents.
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Read the full bill below:
"Don't Say Gay" Bill by Adam Poulisse on Scribd
Here’s a breakdown of what both sides believe:
What does the bill say?
The proposal has five main sections. Two of them give parents more access to information about their child’s mental and emotional well-being, as well as information about any changes to their mental or emotional health. That includes requiring teachers or administrators to notify parents if they’re monitoring a child more closely for any reason.
A third section gives the bill its nickname. It forbids schools from teaching children about sexual orientation or gender identity. While it specifically mentions primary-age students, it also includes other students if the material is not age-appropriate.
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The fourth section allows parents to sue a school district if they believe their child was given inappropriate instruction.
The final section requires the Department of Education to take another look at school counseling practices and guidelines.
What do supporters say?
Supporters believe this proposal gives parents more access to what their children learn in school and ensures the school cannot hide any information from them.
For much of the last year, conservative parents have been rallying around the topic of education, partly in a backlash to discussions about identity, sexuality and gender that have emerged from left-leaning areas and a maturing Gen Z.
This plan, supporters believe, keeps schools focused on the fundamentals and allows parents to decide when to introduce their children to those other concepts, which some equate to a form of sex education.
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“Let’s stay focused on our mission to equip them with skill sets,” the bill’s author in the Senate said. “Let’s realize that these children belong to families. They are not wards of the state. It’s important that their input into this be respected, rather than treated as outsiders.”
The author said the bill is targeted at a school’s official curriculum and is not meant to include on-the-fly discussions that students instigate.
Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is typically quick to jump on conservative causes as he eyes a run for the White House, said he had not read the bill and was not taking a position on the specifics. However, he endorsed the concept that proponents of the bill were fighting for.
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“My goal is to educate kids on the subjects, math, reading, science, all the things that are so important,” he told reporters. “I don’t want the schools to kind of be a playground for ideological disputes or to try to inject.”
Eyewitness News spoke to Seminole County residents walking around downtown Oviedo and Sanford. Whether they supported or opposed the bill, they agreed parents should get to decide when their kids are first exposed to topics about sexuality and identity and they should have access to information about their kids’ well-being.
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What do opponents say?
Opponents, including the White House, say the devil is in the details — or lack thereof.
In a state where some laws are written descriptively enough to single out individual corporations, the bill offers unusually vague guidance. More transparency and no sexual orientation talk. That’s it.
Educators say it opens the door to an array of problems. If a student with two moms or two dads begins talking about their family in class, they said, teachers would be forced to shut the discussion down or risk being sued by an angry parent.
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“There’s what we call teachable moments where a child may ask a question or a topic may come up,” Florida Education Association President Andrew Spar explained. “Instead of being able to fully discuss it in in an environment that is safe and secured with trained and trusted professionals, we now have to say we can’t talk about that.”
Spar noted that most teachers are in regular contact with parents about what happens in class. He said parents already have ways to remove their child from a particular lesson if they don’t agree with it. While he conceded that occasionally there are instances of discussions getting too close to the line, saying mistakes happen, he added that instruction materials are approved by committees of both educators and parents.
He also said every parent has a different opinion about what’s right for children, and this effectively gives the group of parents who are against the gay community the ability to set the tone for the rest of the class and go to court when they don’t like the instruction material.
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“If a parent doesn’t want their child to read a book, that’s one thing, but for that parent to then say, and no child should read that book, I think that’s a little bit different,” he said.
Then, opponents have concerns about the impacts on students and their own mental health.
“A bill like this pushes LGBTQ kids back in the closet, they internalize their feelings of rejection, they internalize the messages that they hear,” Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith (D-Osceola), an openly gay man himself, said. “42% of them said they seriously considered suicide in the last year.”
In addition to the lack of discussion, Smith and other opponents took aim at the provision that requires teachers and administrators to tell parents about their child’s mental health. Teachers, they said, are often adults kids turn to when they don’t want to tell their parents something. The bill cuts off their ability to be confidential listeners.
“40% of homeless youth in Florida identify as LGBTQ,” Smith said. “How did that happen? It’s because too many of our LGBTQ youth come from families that are not supportive of who they are, and it has driven them into homelessness.”
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Eyewitness News spoke to a high school counselor who said her students first told her about the bill. She said they were scared by it and believed they would no longer have a way to work through their issues without their parents getting involved.
While she supported some of the most fundamental things in the bill — namely, the ability to decide what is appropriate for her own kid — she said her students were so opposed to the measure that she hoped it would never see the governor’s desk.
“Our schools oftentimes are the only place where a kid has to go, where they can get support, where they can be affirmed, and where they can have safe and healthy environments where they can thrive,” Smith said. “That’s why some of these policies are so important and critical.”
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