Back at DeSantis’ Florida school, as teachers look over their shoulders

Erin Brown, a teacher in St. Johns County, Florida, routinely keeps a gay pride flag hanging in her classroom. As the faculty sponsor of a Gay-Straight Alliance club at her high school, she wants her students to know they are safe with her.

This year, Brown found herself bringing back the flag quietly.

No longer on full display, it now hangs as a “rainbow background,” partially hidden among posters, photos, a journal and other trinkets on her classroom bulletin board.

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The change is emblematic of the fear, uncertainty and confusion many Florida educators say they are feeling this year as new laws take effect that limit instruction on gender identity, sexual orientation and race and expand textbook oversight.

Gov. Ron DeSantis, who championed the laws, argues that public schools should focus on teaching core academics, not promoting a liberal ideology, and that parents have a right to know what is being taught in the classroom.

“Our school system is about educating kids, not indoctrinating kids,” she said last month at a conference for Moms for Liberty, a parents’ group that has become a powerful force in school policy.

The changes come with significant stakes for school districts, which could be sued for violations of the law that focus on LGBTQ identity. Within the first few weeks of school, teachers in some areas of the state were asked to remove stickers showing support for LGBTQ students, review every book on their classroom shelves and, in at least one case, remove rainbow-colored paper from A classroom door after the decorations prompted a complaint from a parent, according to interviews with teachers, union officials and gay rights advocates across Florida.

“It feels treasonous,” Brown said of the new legislation. She rearranged her pride flag because, like other educators, she said she erred on the side of caution this year.

Nationally this year, state lawmakers have introduced at least 137 bills seeking to limit instruction on topics such as race, gender, LGBTQ issues and American history, up from 54 last year, according to a report by PEN America, a group freedom of speech. The bills, which focused overwhelmingly on K-12 schools and were sponsored almost exclusively by Republican lawmakers, were usually about race. But a growing number — 23 bills, up from five last year — focused on LGBTQ issues, according to PEN America.

“It opens a second front in public education,” said Jeremy C. Young, lead author of the report, which identified seven bills that became law, including two in Florida. “Accusing public education of indoctrinating students based on race and then the same accusation of indoctrinating them with LGBTQ propaganda.”

Nowhere is that more visible than in Florida, where DeSantis has made issues of gender and race identity education central to his platform, and has led the charge for parental oversight in education amid a re-election campaign and, some politicians observers, a run for president in 2024.

Such policies have found support in battleground states, according to at least one recent poll, and a majority of DeSantis-endorsed school board candidates in Florida won their elections this week.

DeSantis “strongly believes” in the rights of parents to know what schools are teaching their children, his office said in a statement.

One of Florida’s new laws, the Parental Rights in Education Act, bans teaching about sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through third grade and says teaching in older grades must be age-appropriate . The law, nicknamed “Don’t Say Gay” by critics, also requires schools to notify parents of changes in student services, such as if a transgender or non-binary student wants to use new bathrooms or lockers or wants to change his name or pronouns at school.

Another law, known as the Stop WOKE Act, restricts teaching about race and racism, including banning teaching that would make students feel responsible, guilty or distressed about what other members of their race have done to them in the past.

Not all teachers feel wary.

Some believe their job is clear: to teach reading and math, not race and sexuality. Still others say that certain controversial concepts were never part of the curriculum in the first place.

Scott Davey, a seventh-grade civics teacher in the Tampa Bay area, expects “no difference.” Teaches a state-defined curriculum that focuses on government, including the US Constitution and Bill of Rights. “We teach the bench points,” he said. “That’s enough to keep us busy.”

Others, however, described the feeling of trying to thread a political needle. It is not only about what they teach, but also how the students interpret it. For example, the law says that teachers cannot force students to believe that someone is inherently privileged or oppressed because of their race.

“I’ve never used the word oppression in my classroom,” said Renel Augustin, who teaches African-American history at a high school in Davie, Florida, covering everything from the transatlantic slave trade to the civil rights movement and beyond.

It presents historical evidence, he said, and allows students to draw their own conclusions.

Still, he said, “it’s really hard to read all of this history, to see all of these situations, to present all of this evidence, and to think that these kids aren’t going to come to the conclusion that there’s some kind of oppression.”

Perhaps most complicated of all, teachers say, are the ways in which students sometimes bring race, gender identity and politics themselves—from wondering whether Scout, the tomboy character in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” might be transgender, until they’re asked about illegal immigration during a citizenship class.

Rebecca McDermott, who teaches gifted classes for elementary students in Duval County, said she has heard students use the term “gay” to insult each other. In the past, she said she usually interjected and asked students to think about what the term meant.

“A lot of times they didn’t know,” said McDermott, who is gay and has two children with his wife. “It’s something they’ve heard.”

Now, he’s wondering if it’s best to distance himself. He’s mentally rehearsed what he might say this year: “We’re not here to talk about it. We’re here to find out. Let’s move on.”

State officials have said the Parental Education Rights Act limits instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity, not just discussion.

In response to a lawsuit challenging the law, state officials said gay teachers could display family photos, employees could intervene against gender and sexuality-based bullying and schools could host clubs for LGBTQ students . The law does not prohibit “incidental references in literature to a homosexual or transgender person or to a same-sex couple,” according to court documents.

However, the law has left some educators wondering: Where does discussion end and teaching begin?

“It was always written to be vague and have a sweeping effect, because the goal was the chilling effect,” said Joe Saunders, senior political director for Equality Florida, an LGBTQ advocacy group suing the state.

The Florida Department of Education declined to comment, citing pending litigation.

And students wonder what is allowed. Adrianna Gutierrez, 15, a sophomore in Hialeah, Florida, who is lesbian, said when she first heard about the law, she was devastated. “I was like, oh my God, I’m not going to be able to express who I am,” she said.

She later learned that she could, in fact, talk about her identity at school. He has worked to spread the word to other students.

Bridget Ziegler, a Sarasota County school board member who recently won re-election with DeSantis’ endorsement, said the law has been “completely falsified, with the label that I’m not allowed to say, because I don’t even want to give it more air.”

Ziegler, whose husband is the vice chairman of the Florida Republican Party, disputed reports that school officials would have to notify parents if a student came out as gay, which she said was unrelated to the child’s education services. But if children wanted to change their name on school documents because of gender identity, for example, “that’s a different story.”

“Parents need to be involved, not cut out,” he said.

For Sheryl Posey, a school psychologist in the Orlando area, the new requirements pose a “huge moral conundrum.”

When a student confides in her about her gender identity or sexuality, she said it’s her practice to ask if she has a safe person to talk to at home.

“I want to work with parents,” he said. But if a student is not ready to come out, she is bound by professional ethics that require confidentiality unless a student is a danger to herself or others.

If asked to leave by a student, she isn’t sure what she would do. (The law allows school districts to withhold information that may lead to abuse, neglect, and neglect.)

“I’m really at a loss, honestly,” Posey said. “It’s a lot like trying to walk a tightrope between law and morality.”

With politics looming large in the classroom, even classics like The Great Gatsby take on new meaning this year.

“Gatsby is about the futility of the American dream,” said Kathryn Clark, a St. Johns County English teacher who teaches the novel every year. “If I talk about the futility of the American dream, will that indoctrinate them? Am I selling them for this anti-American idea?’

“We’re all nervous,” he said.

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