In March, the Parental Rights in Education Bill was passed by both Florida's House and Senate. The controversial bill was then sent to Governor Ron DeSantis, who despite corporate and public outrage, signed it enthusiastically last Monday. The bill, dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill by adversaries, aims to protect the “fundamental right of parents to make decisions regarding upbringing and control of their children” by requiring school districts to notify parents of student counselor meetings or other classroom decisions.
Opposition to this bill stems from one of its provisions that “prohibits classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity in certain grade levels”, according to the bill outline. In a traditionally right-leaning state, this provision greatly harms the LGBTQ+ community, in and outside Florida, as books, discussions, and school counselor meetings about gender identity and sexual orientation are not allowed or are, at minimum, reported to parents. This may further isolate students who have questions about their identity, seek a safe place to discuss their questions with a trusted school adult, or desire to be inclusive and knowledgeable.
Parents and legislators in Florida have chosen exclusivity over fostering a safe educational environment for students of all backgrounds out of fear of exposing children to information about gender identity or sexual orientation. Much of the public outrage comes from the idea that the unease parents have with students learning about such topics in elementary and middle school perpetuates the false notion that facets of identity are chosen and influenced by sharing of different identities. This could have potential implications for young children who may learn in school that these kinds of conversations or feelings they may have are wrong.
Beyond the possibility that homophobia may stem from classrooms in Florida, one provision of this bill may further affect the safety of LGBTQ+ students who take refuge in academic settings. Claiming to protect parental rights, the bill says that “school district personnel may not discourage or prohibit parental notification of and involvement in critical decisions affecting a student’s mental, emotional, or physical health or well-being”. Critics of the bill say that affirming parental rights to sue school districts for withholding information will limit the ability of students to reach out to trusted teachers or counselors when struggling with perceptions of their identity, mental health or other stresses.
For many students of all ages, stress from school, friends or home environments is safe to share at school because they are free to share their feelings without fear of parents finding out. While proponents of the bill will argue parents must be notified when a student's mental or physical health is in danger, there are many open-ended provisions of this bill that could potentially be used for harm. For students who feel unsafe sharing their identity or other feelings with their parents, the decision will soon be made for them. Not only can this negatively affect familial relationships, but it shrinks safe spaces for LGBTQ+ youth who already can encounter discrimination in the classroom.
Companies have begun to come under fire for campaign donations to Florida legislators–including Disney. Where Disney has clarified its stance on the protection of LGBTQ+ rights and teachings about different identities in classrooms, many are staying silent. Opponents of the bill include companies who had previously donated to Florida legislators and have now withdrawn support, and also various rights-protection groups and activists.
In an age where conversations about mental health are growing more frequent in classrooms and work settings, there is no doubt that care for children in terms of stress, emotional concerns, and overall health is important to parents and school professionals alike. However, with this bill, the protection of parental rights will soon conflict with the fundamental rights of students to explore who they are and learn how to care for and respect other students who are different from them. With DeSantis’ signing of this bill, numerous activists and company CEOs have called for its repeal. As Florida’s classroom conversation will change next year, it will be imperative to examine the potential consequences for children as pointed out by various challengers.