JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Some Duval County students are outraged after a bill that will ban teaching lessons on sexual orientation and gender identity in elementary schools has been approved by the Florida Senate and is poised to become law.
The Parental Rights in Education Act (HB 1557/SB 1834) — which has been nicknamed by critics as the "Don't Say Gay" bill for its potential to stifle conversations about identity in the classroom — was approved by the Senate in a 22-17 vote and is now one signature away from becoming law in the state of Florida. Gov. Ron DeSantis has suggested he will sign the bill it into law.
In Jacksonville, students at several high schools across Duval County Public Schools, including Mandarin, Terry Parker, Atlantic Coast, and Stanton organized and showed opposition against the bill.
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Gracie Warner, 17, participated in a walkout last week at Mandarin High School.
"It showed unity," Warner told the Times-Union. "Not just in our school, but around the entire state. [There will be] people who don't approve of us ... but that makes us stronger as one voice. When we do something peacefully and together as one, we can get change."
Though the potential law would mostly affect kindergarten through third-grade instruction, the bill's language says all grade levels of instruction should be "age-appropriate" but is vague on specifics.
Dan Merkan, the director of policy for local LGBTQ group JASMYN — a youth services organization — says the vagueness makes the bill dangerous.
"It means any teacher might be challenged or any district sued even over any discussion of LGBTQ topics," he said. "Collectively, these 'Don't Say Gay' bills would have a chilling effect on LGBTQ students and limit their options for safe conversations with caring school staff."
Following the Senate's approval, JASMYN CEO Cindy Watson released a statement condemning the bill.
"JASMYN stands with Queer students, youth of color and their supporters, especially during a time when the Florida Legislature is racing to pass laws that threaten to limit their ability to express themselves, seek confidential support from a teacher or learn about the diversity of our community," she wrote.
State Rep. Angie Nixon of Jacksonville called the measure "one of the most hateful and discriminatory bills that has passed out of this legislative body."
"I'm disgusted," she said. "My Republican colleagues have done nothing to address the housing crisis we are in. But sure, let’s create culture wars and erase kids."
The Stanton College Preparatory School Student Government published a statement against the Parental Rights in Education Act, as well as the pending Stop WOKE Act (HB 7/SB 148), which could limit classroom discussions on race and discrimination.
"We have discussed our opposition to their [the bills'] proposed policies, their vagueness, and their malicious and ... their disregard for students' rights, especially for LGBTQ+ people and people of color," Student Government President Joaquin Marcelino said.
Some Florida teachers fear new limits on classroom discussions will drive many to exit profession.
During the pandemic, teachers — many who put their own health at risk — were hailed as heroes by state leaders. Now, many of these same teachers say they feel they are in the political crosshairs.
“It’s been a quick change from how teachers were looked upon, when we first started having to lock down,” said Charles Walsh, 64, a history teacher at Clay County's Orange Park High School. “People then seemed to appreciate us."
Teachers had pivoted almost overnight to conducting both online and in-person education and later dealt with the daily challenge of negotiating with parents over whether a child wears a mask.
“Some parents were teaching their kids at home and struggling, and asking for help, and those who had their children in our classrooms were happy we were there. They told us how needed we were. It’s been a rapid turnaround,” said Walsh, who four decades ago taught Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran at Hudson High School.
Some school districts across Florida — including Broward and Palm Beach — have published statements in opposition of the bills and potential law. But Duval County Public Schools hasn't issued an official statement. Still, some leaders have spoken out.
On Twitter, School Board member Elizabeth Andersen voiced concerns.
"When folks claim that talking about sex/gender is taboo or should be part of a 'value' system discussed only in one’s private homes, we perpetuate a dangerous narrative that our LGBTQ friends and neighbors are something other than people trying to live life fully and authentically," she said. "As a Licensed Mental Health Counselor proudly supporting many LGBTQ youth, I worry about the climate this leg [legislation] creates."
LGBTQ and mental health advocates say that if passed, the provisions could silence important conversations about identity within the classroom out of fear of violating the law's vague terms. They also worry that the law could result in declining mental health and even higher rates of youth suicide.
A report conducted by The Trevor Project last year said that 42 percent of LGBTQ youth seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year, including more than half of transgender and nonbinary youth. BIPOC LGBTQ+ youth made up the highest percentage of those who attempted suicide.
During a radio interview on WJCT's First Coast Connect last week, Superintendent Diana Greene said she couldn't speak on behalf of the School Board and that if the bill is signed into law, she will have to require the district to implement them.
"I believe our teachers only have the best interest of their students and we need to make sure our students' needs — regardless of gender identity — are met and the students have a great student experience," she said. "It’s going to be challenging depending on how that bill shakes out in the end."
The Times-Union reached out to the school district for additional comment now that the bill has passed.
"It is the district’s practice to remain focused on our operations and not respond publicly to legislative issues that emerge during session," district spokesman Tracy Pierce said. "We remain committed to our policies which protect our employees, students, and anyone associated with the district from discrimination, harassment, sexual harassment, or retaliation. We prohibit discrimination based upon race, color, gender, age, religion, marital status, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, political or religious beliefs, national or ethnic origin, pregnancy, genetic information, and veteran status."
Pierce added that the district monitors bills moving through legislation and works with state groups, like the Florida Association of District School Superintendents and the Florida School Boards Association to contribute input on the bills.
"If the governor signs this into law, we will follow the direction of the Florida Department of Education and advice of our legal counsel in developing procedures and training to ensure we are in compliance," he said.
Critics of the bill worry that it could stigmatize LGBTQ youth and prevent discussions about their home life and families from the classroom.
Rebecca McDermott of Jacksonville, an educator who is also a member of the LGBTQ community, worries that the bill could close off her daughter's conversations at school about her family life.
"As a parent of a 6-year-old who has two moms, I am terrified that this bill will end up making her feel like her family is less than others," McDermott said. "My daughter should feel free to discuss her family with whomever she chooses and her teachers should be allowed to talk to her, too."
It's hard to say exactly how many elementary school-aged children in Florida identify as LGBTQ. But experts say that banning conversation about identity and self-expression can also hurt straight, cisgender students, who will have less guided discussion and exposure to peers who may be different or come from a non-traditional family.
Charles Stevens, 18, who attends Mandarin High School and participated in his school's protest, worries that if the bill is signed into law, teachers will shy away from teaching LGBTQ+ history.
"School is a place to go to learn all the facts, not just some. It's not fair because history is LGBTQ+ history," he said. "It was important to me to join the protests because people of this community deserve to show their colors and their outrage because of this bill. If we can teach heterosexual sex in sex ed classes, we can damn sure teach a little bit about the LGBTQ+ community."
USA TODAY Network-Florida staff writer John Kennedy contributed to this report.