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EXPLAINER: DeSantis signs Florida gender identity education law

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signs the Parental Rights in Education bill at Classical Preparatory school Monday, March 28, 2022 in Shady Hills, Fla. (Douglas R. Clifford/Tampa Bay Times via AP)

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Florida has come under intense national scrutiny over legislation that critics have labeled the “Don’t Say Gay” law.

The GOP legislation, which Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law March 28, bars instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through the third grade. Republicans argue that parents should broach these subjects with children. Democrats have said the law demonizes LGBTQ people by excluding them from classroom lessons.

What does the law do?

The law’s central language reads: “Classroom instruction by school personnel or third parties on sexual orientation or gender identity may not occur in kindergarten through grade 3 or in a manner that is not age appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards.”

Parents would be able to sue districts over violations.

During his bill signing ceremony, DeSantis presented an example of what he considers inappropriate teaching material for the young students: A poster containing a drawing of “The Genderbread Person,” developed to help students learn about and distinguish between anatomical sex, gender expression, gender identity, sexual attraction and romantic attraction.

The graphic has been included in various anti-bullying training programs and offered as a resource by the Washington-based LGBTQ rights advocacy group Human Rights Campaign and others.

“This is trying to sow doubt in kids about their gender identity,” DeSantis said. “It’s trying to say that they can be whatever they want to be. This is inappropriate for kindergarteners and first graders and second graders. Parents do not want this going on in their schools.”

DeSantis said the graphic was being used in Florida and other states.

“For years, we have asked elected officials to prioritize the protection of children and to respect families in their policy-making,” commented Brent Leatherwood, acting president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. “In general, this new law creates a framework for just that. Mothers and fathers absolutely should be the ones surfacing complex matters with their children for the first time, not someone outside the home.

“Perhaps it is the low view our culture has of the family at this point, but laws that empower parents should be ones that we affirm and want more of.”

What are the criticisms?

Opponents of the law say banning lessons about gender identity and sexual orientation marginalizes LGBTQ people and their presence in society.

In that vein, they have labeled the measure the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. Republicans have chafed at that phrasing, chiding advocacy groups and news outlets that have used it.

Critics of the law say its language – “classroom instruction,” “age appropriate” and “developmentally appropriate” – is overly broad and subject to interpretation.

Consequently, teachers might opt to avoid the subjects entirely at all grade levels for fear of being sued, they say.

DeSantis and Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran have waved off those concerns. Corcoran points to a section of the legislation that requires his agency to draw up additional guidelines.

“Now we can go and … work it out so people have that clear understanding,” Corcoran said. He said what passing the law did was to “set clear guardrails.”

Andrew Spar, president of the Florida Education Association, said the law is nothing more than a political wedge issue for Republicans. He notes that elementary schools, especially in kindergarten through third grade, do not teach these subjects.

Does the law do anything else?

A less-talked-about aspect of the law requires districts to notify parents of health care services offered in schools and give them the option to decline them.

Districts will also be required to notify parents if there is any change in a student’s mental, emotional or physical health monitoring.

Republicans have said the law is intended to keep parents informed of what children learn and are exposed to in schools. Under a similar rationale, DeSantis last week signed a bill that gives parents a say in what books schools can and can’t have in their libraries and requires elementary schools to provide a searchable list of every book available or used in instruction.

What’s next?

LGBTQ advocacy groups and Democrats have hinted at taking legal action but nothing has yet materialized.

U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona on Monday said his agency “will be monitoring this law upon implementation to evaluate whether it violates federal civil rights law.” He said students or parents who believe they are experiencing discrimination in school can file complaints with federal officials.

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