FL education officials put 10 school districts under the microscope, this time over LGBTQ+ policies

By: - December 14, 2022 4:11 pm

LGBTQ community. Credit: CD Davidson-Hiers/Florida Phoenix

Several school districts which were previously in trouble for butting up against statewide mask policies are once again under the microscope of state education officials, this time for policies that try to accommodate LGBTQ+ students.

On Wednesday, the state Board of Education heard an update on the LGBTQ+ policies of 10 school districts to see if their policies run up against a law and rules related to whether students can choose their names and pronouns based on their gender and whether parents are notified on that issue.

In addition, the law and rules include parent notifications for the use of bathrooms and locker rooms as well as overnight field trips when it comes to gender.

Those issues have been scrutinized by the state Board of Education, which sent a handful of letters to district superintendents, urging them to review all policies and procedures that “may not comport with Florida law.”

The Wednesday board meeting was an update on the process to align the new state board rules in connection with the 2022 Parental Rights in Education law.

But many of these districts have a tumultuous history with state education officials in recent years, when disagreements over mask mandates during a spike in the COVID-19 pandemic led to administrative challenges, federal involvement and the withholding of certain school board salaries.

Whether those measures could crop up again, is not clear.

“We’re not here to enforce anything, we’re here to listen to Chancellor (Jacob) Oliva as he makes his presentation,” Board Chair Tom Grady said in conference call meeting Wednesday.

“But I did want to point out that this ties in directly to the parental rights act, and parents’ ability to force districts to follow the law. At its core, that’s what this is about,” Grady said.

Wednesday meeting

The 10 school districts at the center of the Wednesday Board of Education meeting are: Alachua, Brevard, Broward, Duval, Hillsborough, Indian River, Leon, Miami-Dade, Palm Beach and a special school district for the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind.

According to a Phoenix analysis of voter registration data by county, many of these school districts are in counties that are  Democratic-leaning, including Alachua, Broward, Duval, Hillsborough, Leon, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach.

Take the Alachua County school district, which was identified by the Board of Education for the following policy:

“All students’ privacy rights will be respected and personal information about the student, including their sexual orientation, gender identity and, and gender expression, will not be shared without the students’ or parents’ consent,” emphasis in context.

The Duval County school district also had guidance on how to handle a student who identifies as LGBTQ+, specifically transgender students, that the department flagged for potentially conflicting with state law and rules.

“Disclosure by a student of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity, absent other factors does not mandate reporting the disclosure to a parent,” the Duval policy reads.

And in Hillsborough County, the school district policy “transgender…students must be permitted to: be addressed by the affirmed name and gender pronouns with which they identify” raised concerns for the board, according to the November letter.

But in all of these letters, it is not clear how the district policies or guidance exactly go against state law or rules, nor are suggestions given to remedy the potential violations.

Leon County Superintendent Rocky Hanna said that his district, which includes Tallahassee, is still in the process of updating their policies.

“We are trying our best to work with you all (state education officials) to get guidance on how we can ensure that we are abiding by the parental Bill of Rights while also protecting student privacy rights,” Hanna said on the conference call. It’s not clear if Hanna meant the 2021 Parents’ Bill of Rights or the 2022 Parental Rights in Education.

The Parental Rights in Education law, also known by critics as the “Don’t Say Gay” law, has been long criticized for having vague and broad language.

The letters from the Board of Education conclude that name changes and pronoun usages “could” be in violation of the law.

However, pronouns, name changes or bathroom usage are not identified in the Parental Rights in Education Law.

Many of the LGBTQ+ accommodation policies have been removed from school district websites, according to district responses to the board.

For example, Superintendent Michael Burke wrote in his response letter: “The School District of Palm Beach County’s LGBTQ+ Critical Support Guide has been removed from our website. Staff will be working with our Office of General Counsel to develop a new guide that is fully compliant with state statute, State Board of Education rule and reflective of recent changes to Florida High School Athletic Association (FHSAA) guidance.”

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Danielle J. Brown
Danielle J. Brown

Danielle J. Brown is a 2018 graduate of Florida State University. She has served as an editorial intern for International Program’s annual magazine and Rowland Publishing. She was born and raised in Tallahassee and reviews community theater productions for the Tallahassee Democrat.