J. Marie Bailey speaking at a Senate Education committee meeting against SB 1834, known as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. Feb. 8 2022. Credit: Screenshot/ Florida Channel
Members of Florida’s LGBTQ community and their allies lined the walls of a Senate Education Committee room Tuesday morning, waiting to oppose a Parental Rights in Education bill — or what critics call the “Don’t Say Gay” bill.
But the advocates, many of whom traveled hours to the Florida Capitol, only got 30 seconds (at max, one minute) to explain to senators why they oppose the bill before lawmakers would vote.
In the course of 40 minutes, nearly all public comments were in opposition of the bill. And more than 80 written comments were opposed as well, according to Education Chairman Sen. Joe Gruters.
Those opposed to the legislation fear that the bill would bring a chilling affect to Florida classrooms regarding LGBTQ students and families, and are concerned that it would put LGBTQ students at risk of bullying or being “outed” to an unsupportive family.
At issue is SB 1834, sponsored by Sen. Dennis Baxley. He is a Republican who represents Sumter county and parts of Lake and Marion counties. The bill allows parents to sue school districts if they are not privy to situations related to their children or if their students are encouraged to have discussions on sexual orientation and gender identity.
However, even Republican lawmakers raised some concerns.
Sen. Kathleen Passidomo, representing Collier and Hendry counties and part of Lee, asked if Baxley would be willing to change the enforcement of the bill from a lawsuit to instead a complaint, investigation and a fine. He did not give a solid yes or no, but he said he’d be willing to “discuss options.” Passidomo is the chair of the powerful Rules committee and the incoming Senate President.
Sen. Jennifer Bradley, representing several North Florida counties, asked if he’d be willing to adjust the bill to make sure it “reflects the spirit” that he intends, such as specifying which grades are impacted by the bill.
He said he’d be “open to that.”
That said, both Passidomo and Bradley voted for the bill on Tuesday.
“A school district may not encourage classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity in primary grade levels or in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students,” the bill says.
“My purpose of this is to give relief to the school staff, that they are not responsible for every issue in every person’s life,” Baxley said in response to questions from the senators.
He continued: “I think what’s happening is that they (teachers) have a political and cultural view that they get wrapped up in…and not thinking about ‘this is the parent’s role. This is not my role.’ That’s all. It’s allowing some boundaries to show you what are the priorities — what is a teacher to do and what is a parent to do.”
Part of the concern is a lack of clarity in the bill.
Would benign conversations about a student’s family qualify as encouraging “discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity” if a student’s parents happen to be gay or transgender? Would that extend to straight teachers referencing their spouses or significant others?
Baxley claims that the bill addressed “curriculum” and “not about ordinary conversations,” despite the bill never mentioning the term “curriculum” at all.
“My concern is when we’re off track — rather than equipping these very young students with basic skill sets — rather that we have an agenda that is part of the curriculum, that is, I believe, social engineering and is age-inappropriate, kids are kids. Let them be children,” Baxley said.
The legislation also does not define what “primary grades” are, but the bill analysis says that a Department of Education rule “provides the requirements for teacher certification in prekindergarten/primary education, the certification covers instruction provided to students age 3 through grade 3.” Third grade students tend to be about 8 or 9 years old, meaning the bill would impact young children.
The bill prohibits a school district from withholding information from a student’s parents about the child’s mental, emotional, or physical health or well-being.
This is a continuation of measures implemented from the Parents’ Bill of Rights passed last year, which members of the LGBTQ opposed then as well.
Baxley and other Florida Republicans believe that parents have the right to direct their student’s moral upbringing and education.
“Let’s realize that these children belong to families, and are not wards of the state. And it’s important that their (parents) input in this be respected, and not treated as outsiders who are not to be told something,” Baxley said.
But members of the LGBTQ community fear that this will lead to teachers and staff having to “out” a student to an unsupportive family, potentially bringing harm or distress to the child at home. “Outing” refers to when someone’s sexuality or gender identity is revealed to others without their consent.
During public testimony, the Democrats on the Education committee waived their debate time that would occur after public testimony in order to give the speakers more time.
Kara Gross, with the the ACLU of Florida, said the bill “seeks to ban classroom discussions related to sexual orientation and gender identity in schools.
“Additionally, it would bar LGBTQ+ students from talking about their own lives and would deny their very existence. It is always appropriate for kids to talk about themselves, their experiences, and their family. These are not taboo subjects, but banning them makes them so. SB 1834’s overly broad and vague provisions would have a chilling effect on support for vulnerable youths due to the creation of a new cause of action against school districts, which would lead to frivolous lawsuits.”
Gruters cut her off in order to get through all the speakers.
A follow-up email from the ACLU of Florida continued the comments from Gross.
“Under the bill, any parent who thinks that a classroom discussion was inappropriate or who is unsupportive of a district’s policies would be given broad powers to sue for damages and attorneys’ fees,” The written comment says.
“This bill does nothing to help and support our youth. Instead, it is meant to stigmatize LGBTQ+ people, isolate LGBTQ+ kids, and make teachers fearful of providing a welcoming and inclusive classroom. This bill will have a real and devastating impact on LGBTQ+ youth, who already experience higher rates of bullying, homelessness, and suicide.”
J. Marie Bailey, a teacher from Orange County Public Schools in Central Florida, has a transgender son and brought him up to the podium with her.
The Orange County teacher said that the bill could lead to teachers deciding not to teach.
“It’s (the bill) eroding trust of a teaching professional, meaning you’re going to cause more teachers to abandon the profession and have a bigger issue next year.’
She continued: “Kids are kids. They play house at four, five, six.”
“(Her son) realized something was different when he was seven years old. And last but least, I cannot teach a student if they are not safe, secure, fed or have rest. It is part of my job to do that to make sure I can teach the skills that they need to be a good human.”
The GOP-controlled committee voted 6 to 3 on party lines.
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