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Equality Florida slams Duval Schools for removing 'Safe Space' rainbow stickers amid 'rebrand'

Duval students are coming back to school to classrooms that have been "stripped bare" of signs of LGBT support, teachers say.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — This story was originally reported by the Florida Times-Union.

The video attached to this story is from a previous, unrelated story.

Some Duval Schools teachers say they spent their planning week peeling rainbow Safe Space stickers and posters that indicate LGBTQ allyship off their classroom windows, walls and doors ahead of students' arrival Monday morning for their first day.

Equality Florida — a statewide civil rights organization focused on the LGBTQ community — published a statement criticizing Duval County Public Schools officials for putting out guidance to principals that advised the removal of the rainbow signage. 

"As Duval County Public Schools students begin their first day of school, they are returning to classrooms that have been stripped bare of all visible support for LGBTQ students," the group's statement said. "Last week, the school district’s leadership held an emergency meeting with school principals in which they were directed to remove all posters, wall decorations, and stickers that support and affirm LGBTQ students."

Duval Schools officials say the removal is one facet of a district-wide rebrand of its existing "All In For Safe Schools" campaign that will better comply with the new Parental Rights in Education Act, which became law in July. Equality Florida calls the gesture "censorship."

"We are in the process of rebranding the 'All In for Safe Schools' program," district spokesman Tracy Pierce said. "The purpose of the rebranding is to send a clear message to all students that the support available through the program is open to them and not limited to any specific student population." 

The campaign changes come amid the rollout of the Parental Rights in Education Act — infamously known as "Don't Say Gay" by critics — which calls to halt discussions or curricula surrounding gender identity and sexual orientation in the classroom and allows parents to pursue legal action against educators and school districts they think are in violation. School districts across the state have spent summer break overhauling student support guides and policies to comply with the new law.  

RELATED: Florida students won't have to cover 'Don't Say Gay' walkout photos in yearbook

The Parental Rights in Education law has been criticized for its vague language, which LGBTQ advocates worry could act as a muzzling tactic surrounding the discussion of LGBTQ topics within school districts. Previously, state guidance said that Safe Space signage did not violate the law, but Pierce said the district is changing things out of concern the rainbows could be construed as "district speech associated with a specific social issue."  

Pierce said that the Safe Space rebrand coincides with how the school district is repackaging its former LGBTQ Student Support Guide into a broader, more general support guide for all students. The district says the changes make the school's mental health support more inclusive. LGBTQ advocates call it erasure. 

Enforcement of removing existing stickers seems to vary by school for now. 

Orange County removed Safe Space stickers too, but reversed course following state guidance

Earlier this summer, Orange County Public Schools teachers said they were also told by school district officials to peel existing "Safe Space" stickers off their windows and doors to deter from classroom discussions about gender identity. The move was met with criticism from groups including Equality Florida and others who said the new law is only supposed to address classroom instruction. 

School officials in Orange County walked back some of that guidance following backlash and after receiving clarification from the state, which said teachers could continue to display Safe Space stickers and wear their school-issued rainbow lanyards if they'd like. 

Still, experts say the confusion reveals glaring issues school districts are facing as they try to best comply with the new law.  

Andrew Spar, the president of the Florida Education Association, said that instances like stickers being removed are examples of school officials and educators over-applying the law out of fear of being terminated. 

“That’s why we may see some districts overreact by being extra cautious and just banning any conversations” surrounding LGBTQ topics, he said.

Now in Jacksonville, some teachers say they're facing a similar dilemma — and advocates don't understand why. 

“The district’s censorship of LGBTQ-inclusive classroom environments sends a dangerous message to young people,” said Joe Saunders, Equality Florida's senior political director. “Despite false assurances from Republican proponents of the Don’t Say LGBTQ Law that its scope would be narrow and its impacts limited to grades K-3, we are witnessing sweeping effects of this intentionally-vague policy across the state, with broad censorship of LGBTQ people being applied to every grade level."

The district's application of the Parental Rights in Education law still seems murky. Teachers who spoke with the Times-Union said that during meetings and training with their school's respective principals last week, guidance over things like name and pronoun changes seemed to vary by school.

For instance, some principals are saying all student nicknames different from their legally listed name need parent approval. Others say obvious nicknames — like "Jon" being short for "Jonathan" — don't need the same stringency. 

No more rainbows, Duval Schools officials confirm

On Friday, the Times-Union received two emails — one from someone who identified themselves as a Duval County teacher and one the spouse of a teacher. Both said sticker removals were ordered at their respective schools. Both declined to identify their campus or reveal additional details citing fear of retaliation.  

At least three teachers and one principal told Equality Florida that school district officials had ordered the removal of Safe Space stickers — most of which were provided by the school district in the first place, a spokesman with the organization said. Duval Schools confirmed the signage removal and rebrand with the Times-Union.

In the past, Duval Schools provided teachers with Safe Space items — like stickers, lanyards and badges — in rainbow hues that showed allyship and support for LGBTQ students. 

Pierce said in an email to the Times-Union that any materials, including posters, stickers or banners that could be "interpreted as district speech" are being removed and updated with new branding.

Pierce confirmed the rainbows were being removed from the rebranded items, adding that "the new design will strive to be independent and not associated with any symbolism that might be interpreted as a social or political cause."

School employees can still wear their old badges and lanyards, which are protected by personal speech and expression laws, Pierce said. "They will also have the option of wearing the updated badges once they are available."

Earlier this year, the district removed a 12-minute All In For Safe Spaces video from its website that focused on anti-bullying and LGBTQ allyship in schools, WJCT reported.

Pierce could not provide a timeline for when the replacement badges and stickers will be distributed but said the district is "actively working on the project."

Equality Florida leaders say that taking down rainbow Safe Space signage sends a message to local youth that "there is something inherently wrong with LGBTQ people — and telegraph(s) to LGBTQ youth that they should remain hidden."

The group warns that as students continue to witness LGBTQ erasure on campus, they will continue to face higher risks of depression, anxiety, bullying, discrimination and suicidality compared to their cisgender peers. 

JASMYN Director of Policy Dan Merkan said that Duval Schools' move to pull the LGBTQ-focused campaign flies in the face of data, which shows that in Jacksonville, local LGBTQ youth experience more bullying and are more likely to skip school because they feel unsafe. 

"JASMYN decries the removal of safe space stickers and posters and other materials at a time when students are returning to school and will be visibly shaken by their removal. This action sends a message that LGBTQ+ are not welcome," Merkan said. "These safe schools programs were created to address these horrifying realities and over time have had a positive impact.  Rolling them back and erasing LGBT inclusive materials is a step in the wrong direction and will harm youth."

This story was originally reported by the Florida Times-Union.


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