© 2023 WFSU Public Media
WFSU News · Tallahassee · Panama City · Thomasville
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

Littlejohn shares her fight with Leon Schools as DeSantis signs off on a new law focused on LGBTQ kids

 January Littlejohn talks about her experience with a non-binary child in the Leon County School District
The Florida Channel
January Littlejohn talks about her experience with a non-binary child in the Leon County School District

Leon County Schools has found itself at the center of several key pieces of legislation aimed at curbing school powers. Among the biggest: a new law that prevents schools from making decisions regarding a student’s health and wellbeing without consulting with parents. This is how a local fight between the school district and a parent, resulted in what opponents are calling the “Don’t Say Gay” bill.

A mom reaches out for help

Two years ago, Leon County parent January Littlejohn had a conversation when her then 13-year-old came home from school and told Littlejohn that school officials had asked the child about what bathroom they wanted to use.

"I immediately contacted the school and was told by the guidance counselor and assistant principal that I couldn’t be given any information about the meeting," Littlejohn said.

Littlejohn says she was told that only her child could authorize any sort of disclosure. Littlejohn told her story during a recent signing ceremony for the Parental Rights in Education bill. She says she later learned the school had created a six-page support plan without her knowledge that included the child’s preferred pronouns, restroom preferences, rooming preferences, and the use of the child’s name at school, versus their birth name when talking to the parents.

“This plan directed school staff to conceal from us that this meeting and plan had ever taken place. When parents are excluded from critical decisions about their child’s health and wellbeing at school, it sends a message to children that their parents' input and authority are no longer important," she said.

Littlejohn says the situation created a wedge between the family.

Read more here: These trans youth say Florida's so-called 'Don't Say Gay' bill puts them at risk

A Leon schools fight sparks a national debate

What critics call the "Don't Say Gay" bill, Gov. Ron DeSantis a "sensible" approach to protect "K-3rd graders from being indoctrinated."

According to a series of emails, Littlejohn first raised concerns about her child identifying as non-binary to the school in late August of 2020. In one email from August 27, 2020—Littlejohn writes the child “would like to go by the new name…and prefers the pronouns they/them.” She adds the family has not used the new name at home, but that she told the child if they want to use the new name with their teachers, Littlejohn wouldn’t stop it.

In a follow-up email, the teacher asks Littlejohn whether she wants the teacher to share the name with other teachers. Littlejohn writes that she’s having a hard time with her child’s new name and says “whatever you think is best” and adds the child can “handle it,” and “take the lead on this.”

“Social transition is a medical and mental health intervention that can lead to significant decisions that can impact the child’s mental and physical wellbeing," Littlejohn, who is a licensed mental health counselor, said during her appearance with DeSantis.

"Often social transition is the first step toward medical transition and schools are grossly unqualified to be taking these steps without parental involvement.”

According to the Trevor Project’s 2021 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health, more than 40% of LGBTQ kids considered attempting suicide in the past year. Half of them were transgender or non-binary.

What Leon schools did, in creating an entire plan for teachers about how to address the child without talking to the parents, was beyond what Littlejohn thought would happen.

Leon's Superintendent defends his district

“So, we had a guide to help teachers and administrators have conversations and protect and support children who came to them that were battling gender identity issues. Teachers and administrators don’t want to be in that space but our job is to protect and support children. Period," said Leon Superintendent Rocky Hanna.

He’s really upset that a situation in Leon has become a big deal statewide, and nationally. Hanna notes that teachers have no training on how to deal with situations like these—hence, the creation of the instruction guide.

“I think I did a survey and there were five support plans out of 30,000 students. But if you’re reading the media you’d think this was commonplace in our classrooms and it’s simply not the truth.” 

Hanna believes the situation between the district and Littlejohn has been misrepresented. He says the parent contacted them—and that the district was acting on the direction Littlejohn gave them which the district believed was to let the child handle it.

“That student approached them," Hanna said. "They went to them for guidance and help. And all our people were trying to do was keep that child in a safe place.”  

Yet now, says Hanna, the Leon County School District has become the poster child for the argument that schools are indoctrinating kids and shouldn’t be trusted.

“It’s just a lie," he said, "and unfortunately the Governor is using her [Littlejohn] as a prop, she’s using her child as a child to promote an agenda on a national level, and it’s just sad.”

For his part, Governor Ron DeSantis backs Littlejohn.

“Just so you know, the left, they want that to happen to all other families," DeSantis said of Littlejohn's experience with the Leon County School District. "They don’t want protections for parents. They think they should be able to take your kid and do whatever the hell they want with them. That is wrong, and she was right to stand up against the school district and now every parent is going to have the right to do that.”  

Littlejohn is suing the Leon County School District in federal court. And under the expanded parental rights law, more parents will be able to sue school districts that withhold student information from them. The bill itself is already being challenged in court through a lawsuit by the LGBTQ advocacy group Equality Florida.

Follow @HatterLynn

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. 

Find complete bio, contact info, and more stories here.