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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Back to school in DeSantis’ Florida, as teachers look over their shoulders

Renel Augustin, who teaches African American history at a high school in Davie, Fla., Aug. 24, 2022. “I’ve never used the word oppression in my classroom,” he said. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is battling what he calls “indoctrination” in public schools.

By Sarah Mervosh

Erin Brown, a teacher in St. Johns County, Florida, typically keeps a gay pride flag hanging up 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.

This year, Brown found herself quietly repurposing the flag.

No longer on full display, it now hangs as a “rainbow background,” partially obscured among posters, photos, a calendar and other trinkets on her class bulletin board.

The change is emblematic of the fear, uncertainty and confusion many educators in Florida say they are feeling this school year, as new laws take effect restricting teaching on gender identity, sexual orientation and race and expanding the oversight of books.

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

“Our school system is for educating kids, not indoctrinating kids,” 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 come with significant stakes for school districts, which may be sued over violations of the law focusing on LGBTQ identity. Within the first few weeks of school, teachers in some parts of the state have been asked to take down stickers showing support for LGBTQ students, to review every book on their classroom shelves and, in at least one case, to remove rainbow colored paper from a classroom door after the decorations prompted a complaint from a parent, according to interviews with teachers, union officials and advocates for gay rights across Florida.

“It feels treacherous,” Brown said of the new legislation. She rearranged her pride flag because, like other educators, she said she was erring on the side of caution this year.

Nationwide this year, state lawmakers have introduced at least 137 bills seeking to restrict teaching on topics such as race, gender, LGBTQ issues and American history, up from 54 last year, according to a report by PEN America, a free speech group. The bills, which overwhelmingly focused on K-12 schools and were sponsored almost exclusively by Republican lawmakers, most commonly addressed race. But an increasing number — 23 bills, up from five last year — focused on LGBTQ issues, PEN America found.

“It’s opening a second front on public education,” said Jeremy C. Young, a lead author on the report, which identified seven bills that became law, including two in Florida. “Accusing public education of indoctrinating students on the basis of race, and then making the same accusation that they are indoctrinating them with LGBTQ propaganda.”

Nowhere is that more visible than Florida, where DeSantis has made issues surrounding the teaching of gender identity and race central to his platform, and has led the charge for parental oversight in education, amid a reelection campaign and, some political observers theorize, a run for president in 2024.

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

DeSantis “firmly believes” in the rights of parents to know what schools are teaching their children, his office said in a statement.

One of the new Florida laws, the Parental Rights in Education Act, bans instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through third grade and says that instruction in older grades must be age appropriate. The law, nicknamed “Don’t Say Gay” by critics, also requires schools to notify parents about changes in student services, such as if a transgender or nonbinary student wants to use new bathrooms or locker facilities, or seeks to change their name or pronouns at school.

Another law, known as the “Stop WOKE Act,” limits teaching on race and racism, including prohibiting instruction that would compel students to feel responsibility, guilt or anguish for what other members of their race did in the past.

Not all teachers feel wary.

Some believe their job is clear: to teach reading and math, not race and sexuality. Still others say some contested concepts were never part of the curriculum to begin with.

Scott Davey, a seventh-grade civics teacher in the Tampa Bay area, anticipates “no difference whatsoever.” He teaches a state-outlined curriculum that focuses on government, including the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights. “We teach the bench marks,” he said. “That’s plenty to keep us busy.”

Others, though, described a sense of trying to thread a political needle. It’s not just about what they teach, it’s also about how students interpret it. For example, the law says teachers cannot compel students to believe that anyone is inherently privileged or oppressed because of their race.

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

State officials have said that the Parental Rights in Education Act limits instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity, not mere discussion.

In response to a lawsuit challenging the law, state officials said that 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 ban “incidental references in literature to a gay or transgender person or to a same sex couple,” according to court documents.

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

“It was always written to be vague and to be sweeping in its effect, because the goal was the chilling effect,” said Joe Saunders, senior political director for Equality Florida, an LGBTQ advocacy group that is suing the state.

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

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

When a student confides in her about their gender identity or sexuality, she said it is her practice to ask whether they have a safe person to talk to at home.

“I want to partner 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 themselves or others.

If required to out a student, she is unsure what she would do. (The law allows school districts to withhold information that might result in abuse, abandonment and neglect.)

“I’m really at a loss, honestly,” Posey said. “It feels very much like trying to walk a tightrope, between law and ethics.”

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