The trouble in Orange County Public Schools began, perhaps unsurprisingly, at a seminar called “Camp Legal.”
The meeting’s stated purpose was for the district’s attorneys to walk school administrators through changes to law, a part of their annual training. But Florida’s Parental Rights in Education Act, better known as the “Don’t Say Gay” law, was due to take effect the following week, and neither the state nor the district had offered formal guidance on what that new law would actually mean for their classrooms — a problem, since summer school is already in session. So the administrators derailed the lesson plan and unloaded a spade of hypotheticals: Could staff wear the rainbow articles of clothing — like the “Ally” lanyards the district had handed out? What about the “Safe Space” stickers teachers put on their classroom doors? Can teachers display photos of a same-sex partner and, if so, can they tell students who that person is?
When the seminar concluded, the district’s teachers learned that the answer to all of those questions had been an emphatic “no,” according to representatives from the local teacher’s union. The district’s general counsel pushed back against teachers’ alarm in an email, and cautioned elementary school teachers against displaying or wearing anything “that may elicit discussions” that may violate the law.
“Oh, so only K-3 teachers need to go back into the closet, I guess, not the rest,” says Clinton McCracken, a former art teacher who just took the helm of the district’s union.
The “Don’t Say Gay” bill took effect on Friday, which means educators statewide are now barred from teaching about sexual orientation or gender identity to students in kindergarten through third grade. State officials maintain that the ban doesn’t limit the discussion of LGBTQ issues, but educators insist they haven’t received specific guidance from the Florida Department of Education to give them that assurance. The dynamics have left school districts across the state scrambling to comply with a law they don’t really understand, culminating in a chilling effect that’s led to draconian policies and fearful educators who worry about their job security and students’ safety.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) has championed “Don’t Say Gay” as the vanguard of alchemising right-wing cultural grievances into enforceable policy. The policy’s aims are two-fold: It restricts what can be taught about sexual orientation and gender identity and also requires staff to alert parents about “critical decisions affecting a student’s mental, emotional, or physical health” — a demand critics have condemned as a requirement teachers out their students. “We will make sure that parents can send their kids to school to get an education, not an indoctrination,” DeSantis promised at the bill signing.
But exactly how DeSantis might differentiate between “education” and “indoctrination” remained fuzzy in the bill’s text. Teachers and LGBTQ advocates blame the lack of specificity for draconian policies that both overshoot the requirements and isolate struggling students. “This is what activists on the opposite side of the bill warned would happen,” says Anita Carson, a former Florida teacher who now works for Equality Florida, which filed a lawsuit against the legislation.
What unfolded in Orange County isn’t an isolated incident, but rather a variation on a theme that’s repeated across Florida school districts racing to comply with Friday’s deadline in the absence of direct guidance. The Leon County School board unanimously approved a new “LGBTQ Inclusive School Guide” that promises to alert parents if a student who is “open about their gender identity” is in a gym class or on an overnight trip with their children. The policy allows parents to seek “accommodation” if they disagree with that student’s presence, all the while stigmatizing the student in question. Educators in Palm Beach County, meanwhile, have been given a mandate to review the books in their classroom library that could possibly run afoul of “Don’t Say Gay” and other new state restrictions. If a single Palm Beach County teacher determines a book doesn’t meet the requirements, every teacher in the district must remove it from their shelves.
School board meetings in recent weeks have stretched into hours-long marathons. Parents and educators wearing rainbow-colored “Ally” shirts showed up to demand their district not comply with the law, certain that restrictions will have deleterious effects on LGBTQ youth. They were countered by members of Moms for Liberty, the Florida-based grassroots movement that has railed against masking, critical race theory, and LGBTQ equality in schools under the banner of “parents rights.”
Teachers who once felt comfortable in their classrooms worry about what awaits them when school is back in session. “I have to worry about what parts of my life I share, what books I read to my students,” says Shari Gewanter, a 25-year veteran elementary school teacher in Leon County who identifies as LGBTQ. The overall effect, Gewanter says, is people abandoning the profession — a dicey proposition in a state with a 9,000-person teacher shortage. “I am watching my friends, who are exceptional teachers, hand in their keys and walk away,” she says. “With all the laws that keep coming through with pressures on what we can say and read in classrooms, it’s making the burden too great. ”
In Orange County, McCracken, the district union leader, says the district still has not done enough to correct its guidance. He recalled his own education in a small-town Missouri school, an experience defined by menacing notes on his locker and being mocked as a “faggot” by both students and teachers.
“I want to make sure the environment for all students is different from the environment I grew up in,” he says. “I personally barely made it through high school.”