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Florida eyes school LGBTQ support guides

LGBTQ flags fly in London's Hyde Park on July 24, 2021.
Alberto Pezzali
LGBTQ flags fly in London's Hyde Park on July 24, 2021.

Florida Education Commissioner Manny Diaz Jr. on Wednesday gave his staff the go-ahead to "pull" LGBTQ support documents at all school districts, after a State Board of Education member asserted that some could violate a controversial new law.

Board member Ryan Petty said he has “grave concerns” about some LGBTQ support guides provided to students, teachers and school staff members. Petty specifically took issue with one sentence from a Hillsborough County district guide, reading it aloud during a State Board of Education meeting in Pensacola.

“With the limited exception involving the imminent fear of physical harm, it is never appropriate to divulge the sexual orientation of a student to a parent,” the Hillsborough County guide said.

Petty said in an email later he didn’t know whether the Hillsborough County guide had been updated. But during the meeting, he asked the state Department of Education to collect every support guide with the goal of conducting a “review, by this board, to ensure compliance with state law and department regulation.”

A Palm Beach County guide had a section on talking to parents and guardians that was similar to the Hillsborough County sentence. But Palm Beach County overhauled its section after conducting a review.

“Parents are entitled to access their students’ educational records. If the information about a student’s sexual orientation or gender identity is contained in a student record, parents are entitled to this information,” the Palm Beach County section now says. “Students also have a constitutional right to privacy which includes the right to determine whether or not sensitive information about themselves will be disclosed to others.”

Petty did not name the law that he suspects is being violated, but the Legislature this year passed a controversial measure (HB 1557) that bars classroom instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity in early grades. In older grades, the law prohibits such instruction that is not “age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate” for students in accordance with state standards.

Much of the law, which was formally titled “Parental Rights in Education” by its sponsors but given the moniker “don’t say gay” by detractors, is centered on bolstering parental involvement in “critical decisions” about student well-being.

For instance, school boards are directed under the law to adopt procedures for notifying parents if there are changes in students’ services or monitoring related to the students’ mental, emotional or physical health.

“The procedures must reinforce the fundamental right of parents to make decisions regarding the upbringing and control of their children by requiring school district personnel to encourage a student to discuss issues relating to his or her well-being with his or her parent or to facilitate discussion of the issue with the parent,” the law said.

The revised Palm Beach support guide also points out that the law allows districts to adopt procedures that permit school personnel to withhold information if it could lead to “abuse, abandonment or neglect” of students.

Diaz immediately signed off on Petty’s request to probe whether any districts’ LGBTQ support guides run afoul of the law.

“I think we hear what board member Petty is bringing up loud and clear, and we will go ahead and proceed with that request and we will pull those (support guides) and Senior Chancellor (Jacob) Oliva will start that process as soon as we get back,” Diaz said during the meeting, which was held at Pensacola State College.

The board’s move drew immediate criticism from the LGBTQ-advocacy organization Equality Florida, whose press secretary, Brandon Wolf, called it part of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ “cynical weaponization of state agencies” against LGBTQ youth.

“Across the state, districts have spent years working alongside their communities to create more inclusive school environments, implementing nationally recognized best practices for supporting all students. Now, the governor is politicizing those resources for the purpose of bolstering his election year bona fides. School districts routinely review and update these resources to remain in compliance with all applicable laws and provide the best possible support for students,” Wolf said in a statement to The News Service of Florida.

“Equality Florida’s grave concern is for the protection of LGBTQ students. The Department of Education’s record on these issues has demonstrated clear hostility toward those protections,” Wolf’s statement added.

Petty’s focus on LGBTQ support guides was spurred by a conversation held by the state board Wednesday as it weighed approval of a new rule regarding student field trips and extracurricular activities.

Part of the rule requires that district procedures include a requirement that parents sign permission forms that include information such as whether “room assignments for overnight lodging are not separated by biological sex at birth.”

The state board approved the rule.

Ryan Dailey - News Service of Florida