Back to school in Florida in DeSantis, with teachers looking over their shoulders


Erin Brown, a schoolteacher in St. Johns County, Florida, usually holds a gay pride flag 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.

But this year, Ms. Brown found herself quietly using the flag again.

It’s no longer fully visible, but now hangs like a ‘rainbow backdrop’, partially obscured among posters, photos, a calendar and other trinkets on her classroom’s bulletin board.

The change symbolizes the fear, uncertainty and confusion many Florida educators say they are feeling this school year as new laws go into effect restricting education about gender identity, sexual orientation, and race and expanding the oversight of books.

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

“Our school system is designed to educate children, not indoctrinate children,” he said last month at a conference for Moms for Liberty, a parent group that has become a powerful force in school politics.

The changes pose significant interests to school districts, who could be sued for violations of the law targeting LGBTQ identity. In the first few weeks of school, teachers in some parts of the state have been asked to remove stickers showing their support for LGBTQ students, check every book in the classroom and, in at least one instance, use rainbow colored paper. removal of a classroom door after the decorations sparked a complaint from a parent, according to interviews with teachers, union officials and gay rights advocates across Florida.

“It feels treacherous,” Ms Brown said of the new legislation. She rearranged her pride flag because, like other educators, she said she was being careful this year.

State legislators have introduced at least 137 bills this year to restrict education on topics such as race, gender, LGBTQ issues and American history, compared with 54 last year, according to a report by PEN America, a free speech group. Primarily aimed at K-12 schools and sponsored almost exclusively by Republican lawmakers, the bills mostly focused on race. But an increasing number — 23 bills, up from five last year — focused on LGBTQ issues, PEN America found.

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

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Nowhere is that more visible than in Florida, where Governor DeSantis has put issues of gender identity and race education at the center of his platform, and has been in charge of parental controls in education amid a reelection campaign and, according to some political observers , a run for president in 2024.

Such policies have found support in battlefield states, according to at least one recent poll, and a majority of candidates who supported Mr. DeSantis for Florida school boards won their elections this week.

His office did not respond to requests for comment.

One of the new Florida laws, the Parental Rights in Education Act, prohibits instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through third grade and says that instruction in older classes must be age-appropriate. Nicknamed “Don’t Say Gay” by critics, the law also requires schools to notify parents of changes in student amenities, such as if a transgender or non-binary student wants to use new bathrooms or locker facilities, or is name or pronouns at school.

Another law, known as the “Stop WOKE Act,” restricts education about race and racism, including prohibiting instruction that would force students to feel responsibility, guilt, or fear for what other members of their race have done in the past.

Not all teachers are wary.

Some believe their task is clear: learn to read and count, not race and sexuality. Still others say some controversial concepts were never part of the curriculum to begin with.

Scott Davey, a seventh grade social studies teacher in the Tampa Bay area, expects “no difference at all.” He teaches a state-created curriculum that focuses on government, including the United States Constitution and the Bill of Rights. “We learn the benchmarks,” he said. “That’s enough to keep us busy.”

Others, however, described a sense of trying to thread a political needle. It’s not just about what they teach, it’s about how students interpret it. For example, the law says that teachers cannot force students to believe that someone is inherently privileged or oppressed because of his or her 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, on everything from the transatlantic slave trade to the civil rights movement and beyond.

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He presents historical facts, he said, and lets students draw their own conclusions.

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

Perhaps most complicating of all, teachers say, are the ways students themselves sometimes bring up race, gender identity, and politics — from musing about whether Scout, the tomboy character in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” is trans, to questions about illegal immigration during a citizenship lesson.

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

“A lot of times they didn’t know,” says Ms McDermott, who is gay and raises two children with her wife. “It’s just something they heard.”

Now she’s wondering if it’s best to stay away. She has mentally practiced what she might say this year: ‘We’re not here to talk about that. We are here to learn. Let’s move on.”

State officials have said the Parental Rights in Education 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 bullying based on gender and sexuality, and schools could host clubs for LGBTQ students. The law does not prohibit “incidental references in the literature to a gay or transgender person or to a same-sex couple,” according to court documents.

Still, the law leaves some educators wondering: Where does discussion end and instruction begin?

“It was always written to be vague and have an overwhelming effect, because the target was the chilling effect,” said Joe Saunders, senior political director of Equality Florida, an LGBTQ advocacy group that is suing the state.

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

Students also wonder what is allowed. Adrianna Gutierrez, 15, a lesbian sophomore in Hialeah, Florida, said that when she first heard about the law, she was crushed. “I was like, oh my God, I won’t be able to express who I am,” she said.

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

Bridget Ziegler, a Sarasota County school board member who recently won re-election with an endorsement from Mr. DeSantis, said the law has been “completely misrepresented, with the slogan I forbid saying because I don’t even want to give it air anymore.” .”

Ms. Ziegler, whose husband is vice chair of the Republican Party of Florida, opposed reports that school officials would be required to notify parents if a student came out as gay, which she said was irrelevant to the child’s educational services. But if kids want to change their name on school papers because of, say, gender identity, that’s a different story.

“Parents need to be involved and not left out,” she said.

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

If a student confides in her about their gender identity or sexuality, she says it is her habit to ask at home if they have a safe person to talk to.

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

If it is necessary to take out a student, she is not sure what she would do. (The law allows school districts to withhold information that could lead to abuse, neglect, and neglect.)

“To be honest, I really don’t remember,” Mrs. Posey said. “It feels very much like you’re trying to walk on a tightrope, between law and ethics.”

With politics looming in the classroom, even classics like “The Great Gatsby” are taking on new meaning this year.

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

“We’re all nervous,” she said.

The post Back to School in Florida in DeSantis as Teachers Look Over Their Shoulders appeared first on New York Times.


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