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Florida teacher feels state's 'Don't Say Gay' bill is an attack on his profession

For Kindergarten teacher Cory Bernaert, the "Parental Rights in Education" bill, dubbed the "Don't Say Gay" bill, is an attack on him and his profession.

PARRISH, Fla. — “It does make me truly feel like a lesser person...that I can't be who I truly am in front of my kids...that I can't answer questions about who I am," said Kindergarten teacher Cory Bernaert.

For Bernaert, the "Parental Rights in Education" bill, which opponents have dubbed the "Don't Say Gay" bill, is an attack on both his profession and person.

“Me being part of the LGBTQ+ community is who I am. It's not just who I am at home, it's who I am at school and in my profession as well. I don't feel the need to separate them and I don't think I should have to separate them," said Bernaert. 

He teaches at Barbara A. Harvey Elementary School in Parrish, where the school motto is "Family. Memories. Passion." 

On the school's homepage, it says: "Barbara Harvey Elementary reflects our namesake: Passionate and dedicated educators who treat everyone like family." 

In this vain, Bernaert says teachers are encouraged to showcase their personal lives, displaying photos of family, as he does of his partner Jeremiah. And, curious kindergartners sometimes have questions.

“Am I going to be able to be allowed to tell them that this is my partner? What if they asked me 'what does that mean?' Am I going to be allowed to have that discussion with them," Bernaert said.  "This bill makes me question that and I personally don't believe that I should have to wonder if I’m allowed to talk about my home life.”

The bill's Republican sponsors say it would not prohibit conversations about LGBTQ+ families prompted by students.

On Monday, Sen. Jason Pizzo (D-District 38) questioned the bill’s Senate sponsor, Sen. Dennis Baxley (R-District 12). 

“My question is, if there’s a school exercise that results in questions from students about a particular family’s makeup, is that prohibited in class discussion," Pizzo questioned. 

“I think the key is class discussion, it’s not a programmed response or directive or procedure designed by the school system,” Baxley said. 

“Does that mean we can talk about Johnny’s two mommies or Billy’s two daddies,” Pizzo pressed.

“You can't set up a curriculum that tries to persuade about those directions. What you can have is class discussion where they're voluntarily communicating with one another. Anything that’s structured is the focus," Baxley responded.

However, these nuances are not outlined in the bill, and critics say the broad language leaves school districts open to lawsuits from parents who believe any conversation about LGBTQ+ people or issues is inappropriate.

Cory Bernaert says his interpretation leaves him uneasy. 

“When I read this text, it sets a precedent that makes it seem like I’m not able to have these conversations. It makes me wonder whether I’m able to have these conversations,” said Bernaert.

Another gray area is who this law applies to. As it’s written, the Senate bill says school districts may not "encourage classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity in primary grades levels, or in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students."

The latter part creates concerns for middle and high school teachers who often act as mentors and confidants.

Martha B. King Middle School health teacher and Athletic Director Jon Syre said, “I’d rather not fear that my players can't come to me with a personal issue because of a law."

Braden River High School government and economics teacher Brian Kirchberg said, “I don't want to be put in a situation where I have to decide what's moral for me and what's legal...I often act as a sounding board for the students and that’s something that helps them and helps me do my job better. And, I’m worried that’s the sort of thing that’s going to be affected by this bill.”

Kirchberg also believes a bill like this will act to censor discussion at all grade levels. 

“Do do I think [teachers] are going to be more cautious and maybe overly cautious to the point of not teaching the impact of the LGBTQ community? Yeah, I’m worried about that,” said Kirchberg.

The bill's sponsors urge its intentions are all about empowering parents, with Senator Baxley saying, “What I’m for, what this bill is for, and why I’m carrying this bill is that parents need to be in charge.”

However, the president of the Florida Education Association, the state's largest educator union, says the "fight for power" is misplaced.

“This puts out a false narrative that somehow it's either parents’ rights or schools’ rights, and the fact of the matter is that we're on the same team and we should all be working together,” said Andrew Spar.

He worries the threats of lawsuits will place added pressure on teachers during a time when educators are already under enormous strain.

“[Teachers] are leaving, and they’re leaving partly because of pay, and I don’t want to ignore that, that’s a driver, but they’re also leaving because of lack of respect. When we ask teachers what they want to see, number one, they want to see pay increases and number two, they want to see respect,” said Spar.

“I think when you look at the numbers, you can see what it’s like being a teacher in this day and age. We have 4,000 teacher vacancies right now in Florida which is more than we've ever had before at this time of year,” said Spar.

And as this text has worked its way through the Florida Legislature, Cory Bernaert says he's reading between the lines.

“It’s hurtful,” said Cory. "It feels like we're taking many steps backwards. If me being part of this community is going to be the determining factor in whether they think I’m a good educator, that's a big problem. That's a major problem.”

RELATED: VERIFY fact sheet: Florida's 'don't say gay' bill, explained

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