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Florida lawmakers are considering a parental rights bill that has the attention of LGBTQ advocates

The parental rights bill targets grades K - 5.
The parental rights bill targets grades K - 5.

A parental rights bill seeks to keep parents in the loop if anything changes at school regarding their child’s mental, emotional, or physical well-being. It has the attention of those concerned about LGBTQ rights.

“The bill prohibits school districts from maintaining procedures that withhold information or encourage students to withhold information related to students’ mental, emotional or physical health from their parents.” Rep. Joe Harding, R-Ocala, introduced his bill, which says such information may be withheld only if disclosing it could lead to a child’s abandonment, abuse, or other harm.

Here’s the part that got the most attention in the House Education and Employment Committee: “The bill restricts discussions of sexual orientation or gender identity to only those that are age appropriate and developmentally appropriate for students, while prohibiting a school district from encouraging discussions of these topics in primary grades.”

The bill impacts grades K – 5, ages Harding referred to as “moldable and sensitive.” Parents would be able to sue districts that don’t comply.

“How did you determine that it is never under any circumstances appropriate for a school to encourage discussion of sexual orientation or gender identity in primary grade levels?” asked Rep. Kristen Arrington, D-Kissimmee.

“Children ask a lot of questions; conversations are going to come up,” Harding responded. “That is the reality of teaching and working with students. So that's going to happen. What we're talking about is specific procedures that the school has.”

“We are appalled by the bill's provision to ban schools from discussing sexual orientation and gender identity in primary grades,” said John Harris Mauer, Public Policy Director for Equality Florida, during public comment on the bill. “Conversations about us aren't something dangerous that should be banned. That's deeply prejudicial, and it sends a terrible message to our young people, including LGBTQ young people or young people who have LGBTQ parents.”

January Littlejohn stepped up to the podium to explain why she supports the bill. “I am a licensed mental health counselor in the state of Florida and a stay-at-home mom here to three beautiful children in Tallahassee.” Littlejohn said this is an issue that has profoundly impacted her family. She said it started with a discussion her daughter had with school administrators regarding her restroom preference. The school wouldn’t provide information about what was discussed -– without her daughter’s permission.

“After many weeks of going back and forth with the district, we learned the middle school had created a transgender, gender nonconforming support plan with our 13-year-old daughter without our knowledge or consent,” Littlejohn said.

Most of the public testimony came from opponents of the bill, like Reverend Russell Meyer, who said sexuality is part of being human. "As a pastor in both Tampa and Jacksonville, I can tell you that the homeless youth on our streets today across the state of Florida are people who were not able to have open and safe conversations about how they understood themselves at school, and they certainly weren't able to have those at home,” Meyer said.

Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, raised a concern about whether the bill might cause trouble for students who have conversations with each other that the district may deem to be off limits.

“I just feel this undertone, that we consider this to be a dirty subject or a dirty word, and I hope that’s not the intention,” Eskamani said. “We cannot legislate with language that specifically calls out sexual orientation and gender identity and not think that gives off an impression that we don't value folks who have a different gender identity or sexual orientation compared to you.”

The legislation is likely to undergo some changes after several speakers asked for clarifying language about what the bill will do.

Rep. Vance Aloupis, Jr., R-Miami, said he supports the parental rights portion of the bill but has concerns. “If you listen to the debate of this committee and the speakers today,” Aloupis said, “there's significant confusion in terms of individual interpretation of this bill and what the impact is going to be.”

Wrapping up the discussion, committee chair Rep. Chris Latvala, R-Clearwater, said parents should know what’s happening at school.

"This bill is designed for parents to make decisions on what is best told to 6 to 10-year-olds, and so that is important to remember. It should be up to the parents, not the teachers,” Latvala said, “and around here we will always side with the parents.”

The bill was approved and moves on to the House Judiciary Committee.

Gina Jordan is the host of Morning Edition for WFSU News. Gina is a Tallahassee native and graduate of Florida State University. She spent 15 years working in news/talk and country radio in Orlando before becoming a reporter and All Things Considered host for WFSU in 2008. Follow Gina: @hearyourthought on Twitter. Click below for Gina's full bio.