With their licenses in jeopardy, Florida teachers unsure how ‘Don’t say gay’ law will be enforced

At the beginning of each school year, Cory Bernaert, a kindergarten teacher in Manatee County, Florida, introduces himself to families and students in a welcome email. She is open about her LGBTQ identity as a way to build rapport with her students and their families.

But with the passage of the state’s Parental Rights in Education Act— also known to opponents as the “Don’t Say Gay” law — knew this school year could be different.

Now there’s at least one notable change gnawing at the back of his mind: the possibility of losing his license.

On October 19, the Florida State Board of Education approved several rules to implement the new law. Among them was an amendment which prohibits “classroom instruction for students in kindergarten through 3rd grade about sexual orientation or gender identity,” or teacher licenses will be revoked.

“Gender identity and sexual orientation are not standards for kindergarten through 3rd grade,” Bernaert said. “And every teacher knows that. However, LGBTQ+ members who are educators should not feel that talking about their home life or family could be construed as a lecture.”

The rule also aims to protect students by “expanding the definition of discrimination to include subjecting students to training or instruction that espouses, promotes, promotes, instills, or enforces” any prohibited concepts covered by a separate state law aimed at “divisive concepts”, approved. in April.

Bernaert and other educators have questions about what exactly constitutes intentional teaching of gender identity and sexual orientation in the classroom. Neither the amended rule nor state law makes this clear.

The Florida Department of Education did not respond to an inquiry seeking clarification on what constitutes teaching about gender identity and sexual orientation in K-3. In a news release, Board President Tom Grady said the new rules “will promote student safety and ensure Florida continues to provide a high-quality education to every child.”

For teachers, these changes create a classroom environment where LGBTQ-identifying teachers may end up second-guessing whether they can truly be themselves in the workplace, lest discussions of their own identity be interpreted as a violation of the rule.

Enforcement raises due process concerns

While Florida has health education standards for grades K-3, none of these standards specifically address gender identity and sexual orientation.

A lawsuit challenging the law filed by nonprofit Equality Florida, an LGBTQ advocacy group, was recently dismissed.. While plaintiffs have the option to file suit, the state can move forward with enforcing the newly approved rule, said Brandon Wolf, press secretary for the nonprofit.

Due to unclear enforcement details, some educators have decided to remove rainbow buttons from their bags, even though the law does not specifically prohibit them. They fear the conversations that could arise from students’ questions and whether those conversations could end up costing them their jobs, said Clinton McCracken, president of the Orange County Classroom Teachers Association.

Districts work to recruit and retain certified teachers, and there are concerns about how such a rule could negatively impact those efforts, McCracken added. Latest state data showed that for the 2021-2022 school year, the projected number of teacher vacancies is about 9,000.

Part of the concern stems from how serious losing a teacher’s license can be. It’s not just job loss; it can mean the end of a career.

Michael Woods, a high school special education teacher in Palm Beach County schools who is also a union representative, is concerned about how the new rule could deprive educators of due process.

“If they decide they want to make an example of you or pull your license, you’re done,” he said.

And it all depends on how parents and districts interpret what gender identity and sexual orientation education entails in the classroom.

In Manatee County, Bernaert doesn’t plan to change anything about how his classroom works. But it carries a new layer of hesitancy and a sense of injustice.

“Now, when you talk about your family, you’re worried that it’s going to be interpreted as intentionally talking about gender identity, as opposed to your straight peers who can talk about their families and not even care how it happens. interpreted,” he said.

“I want to instill in my students the importance of family, the importance of making memories when you’re at school because it’s a place where you should feel safe, you should feel important and you should feel valued,” Bernaert said. “And when my ability to be such an educator is slightly compromised because of one simple thing that could be interpreted differently, that’s a big deal.

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