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How Leon Schools ended up in the middle of a debate over how to deal with LGBTQ students

Craig Moore
WFSU Public Media

A Leon County fight over how to help and instruct LGBTQ students has made it into a legislative debate over how schools talk about such issues with children. Critics have dubbed the proposal the “Don’t Say Gay” bill because of language in it that prevents classroom discussions of gender identity and sexual orientation in grades kindergarten through third. Such conversations have to be age-appropriate in other grades and adhere to state law—and that's unfairly vague, argue opponents.

The bill’s supporters say their critics are missing the bigger point: that the measure requires schools to not withhold information from parents about their child’s health issues.

The Leon County School district is in the middle of revising its guidance for schools on how to deal with LGBTQ students. The revisions come after a lawsuit was filed in November against the district by parents of a student who say their child’s school intentionally withheld information from them regarding their child’s preferred pronouns and other types of accommodations. Shortly after the lawsuit was filed, the district announced the creation of a group tasked with coming up with a new LGBTQ guide for schools. The new group is made up of parents, teachers, and school administrators.

“So the committee is coming together to do three things: keep our students safe and supported, keep the teachers who are having these conversations safe and supported, and to ensure we are abiding by the Parental Bill of Rights in doing that," said Leon Superintendent Rocky Hanna.

Hanna is frustrated with the perception that the district was acting on its own when in reality, he said, the district’s prior guidance to schools about how to accommodate LGBTQ kids came from the state Department of Education.

“We had actually been to conferences sponsored by the Department of Education to come up with plans to ensure children were not being bullying and harassed…and since that time, the DOE has taken that site down, but a lot of the information we had in our guide came from DOE and links from their site to others that were weighing in on that issue.”

The Parental Bill of Rights was signed into law last July. The same month, the district took down its LBGTQ guidance. In September, the conservative local blog site Tallahassee Reports first reported the parents’ concerns about the district’s policy directives, and in October, the parents sued. Now, even as it works to revise its guidance to schools on LGBTQ kids, the district is being made an example of what Republicans say is 'wrong' with public schools.

“The transgender gender, non-confirming student support plan in Leon County, Martin County, and counties all over the state... And in that support plan the schools are affirmatively excluding the parents," said Rep. Erin Grall, during a recent floor debate over House Bill 1557.

Grall authored last year’s Parental Bill of Rights—a law that makes clear that parents have ultimate say over the health and wellbeing of their kids—even in school settings. That bill has been used to justify Gov. Ron DeSantis’ ban on school mask mandates—it's also being used this year to bolster efforts around the LGBTQ instruction bill. Critics have derided the measure and say it endangers LGBTQ kids who may fear their parents’ reactions. But Grall says that’s an unfair characterization of most parents and a misinterpretation of the bill.

“Why does the bureaucracy get to decide that we [parents] are all dangerous? That we don’t love our children, that we don’t have their best interests in mind, that we should be excluded from the conversation?" said Grall.

"Parents should be right at the middle of this conversation if a child is going through something like this, not people who work at school and not people who have not invested in their child the way that a parent is.

Grall is not the only Republican who feels her position—and the bill itself—is being mischaracterized.

“A lot of things have been said about the bill. A lot of things have been reported about the bill. The name you all have picked that’s been reported on the bill in no way is an accurate description of what’s in the bill— it's four pages, double spaced, and the changes are underlined—they just don’t bother, too," said House Speaker Chris Sprowls, speaking to reporters shortly after the bill passed the House.

Sprowls defended the proposal as one that’s based on ensuring kids are not exposed to topics or issues that may not be appropriate for their age.

“In that bill, it says in grades 1-3, so, six-year-olds, not to have classroom instruction—so teachers teaching on gender identity, sexual orientation, for six-year-olds. I think we’d all agree that if we walked into a first-grade classroom and there was a teacher giving instruction on sexual intercourse, that they would be wildly inappropriate for a six-year-old," he said.

In Leon County’s case, the disputed guide was NOT for children but for the adults tasked with navigating those difficult conversations. The House approved HB 1557 on a 67-49 vote with only one Democrat voting yes on the bill. Several Republicans crossed the aisle to vote against the measure.

When asked about those Republican defections, Sprowls said "You’d have to ask those Republicans. We also had a Democrat who voted for the bill so I guess you could say it was bipartisanly passed.”

Back in Leon County, Superintendent Hanna remains concerned. His LGBTQ guide revision committee remains mired in controversy over whether the parents on it can fully represent all the views on the issue. For now, local education officials have to wait and see what the final language of the proposal will be.

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Lynn Hatter is a Florida A&M University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Lynn has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas.  She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative. 

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