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Florida's education board issues near-ban on gender identity and sexual orientation instruction in public schools

Craig Moore
WFSU Public Media

The Florida Board of Education has approved a new rule that says schools “Shall not intentionally provide classroom instruction to students in grades 4 through 12 on sexual orientation or gender identity unless such instruction is expressly required by state academic standards.” The rule extends an already existing ban on such instruction.

The fight has been framed as either one for parental rights or one that continues what opponents see as a growing attack against LGBTQ-plus people. For Ryan Kennedy of the Florida Citizens Alliance, the line is clear.

“We believe the focus on education should be always teaching the basics, math, science, history, etc. in the classroom. And when it comes to issues such as sexual orientation and gender identity—these issues should be left at home for parents to decide.”

The line is also clear to Panhandle resident Denise Barber.

“Your minds were made up before you came into this room, but I feel its my moral obligation as a parent of a trans kid and grandparent of a transgender child, to say this rule is based in hate. It’s homophobic, it’s bigoted, and it’s a disgrace.”

When Florida lawmakers approved the Parental Rights in Education act last year, they did so under the justification that some schools had overreached by including such lessons in sex ed curriculums, which are traditionally decided at the local level. The Leon County School District was accused of intentionally not informing a parent of their child’s intent to use a different name and pronouns at school—a fight that eventually led to a lawsuit and formed part of the groundwork for the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” law. This year, the legislature is poised to extend that law to higher grade levels, but the state Board has beat them to it, to the disappointment of former sex ed teacher Melinda Stanwood.

“If students don’t get their questions answered by their trusted teachers or those parents willing to talk to their children, they’ll likely get their questions answered by their peers or the internet, with dubious safety and accuracy," she told the board.

At the end of an hour-long debate over the rule, resolution made its decision to adopt to the rule, with State Education Commissioner Manny Diaz picking apart some of the arguments made against it, like claims that its language is overly broad and vague and could lead teachers to self-censor. There are also concerns the rule could further harm the mental health of already-struggling kids.

“We’re not removing anything here. All we’re doing is setting the expectations, so our teachers are clear they are to teach to the standards," said Education Commissioner Manny Diaz. "A lot has been said about mental health and the services of individual students. This doesn’t touch any of that. We want to be clear our teachers are there to teach and provide resources when there’s a need for mental health. Our guidance counselors are there to provide those services. Those things are separate and apart.”

The Board’s actions are part of a broader state agenda in Gov. Ron DeSantis’ ongoing war against what he describes as a "woke ideology." The Republican-led legislature is in lockstep with DeSantis, especially when it comes to what LGBTQ advocates see as a targeted campaign against aspects of their identity.

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Lynn Hatter is a Florida A&M University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Lynn has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas.  She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative. 

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