Fla. to strip licenses of K-3 teachers who discuss gender identity, sexuality

The Washington Post | By Hannah Natanson | October 13, 2022

Florida plans to revoke or suspend the teaching licenses of elementary school educators who teach students about gender identity or sexuality, according to a new rule published by the state’s Department of Education.

The rule, proposed in August and approved by Education Commissioner Manny Diaz Jr. in September, is intended to enforce a 2021 state law that forbids instruction on gender identity and sexuality for children in kindergarten through third grade. The measure, the Parental Rights in Education Act, is known by opponents as the “don’t say gay” law.

The Florida Department of Education has done little to publicize its rule on teachers’ licenses. The rule appeared online around the same time that the state was taking damage from Hurricane Ian, which has left more than 100 dead. News of the rule was first reported Tuesday by the newsletter the Progress Report.

The rule states that any teacher who “intentionally provide[s] classroom instruction” to K-3 students on those two topics will face “revocation or suspension of the individual educator’s certificate, or the other penalties as provided by law.”

The 2021 law already requires schools to create a system via which parents can report teacher noncompliance with the law. If a school system does not address a parent’s concerns, the law makes it easy for parents to sue and says the Florida Department of Education can launch an investigation of the district.

The rule on teachers’ licenses drew immediate condemnation from some teacher groups and LGBTQ advocates. Melanie Willingham-Jaggers, executive director of LGBTQ rights group GLSEN, said in a statement Thursday that the Florida rule “will harm LGBTQ+ students, who we know benefit by having supportive teachers and inclusive curriculum in the classroom.”

The department did not immediately respond on Thursday to a request for comment and a list of questions about the new rule.

The 2021 law goes beyond elementary schools, also limiting instruction on gender identity and sexuality for higher grades by saying those lessons cannot take place “in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate” for students of any age. The law has been widely criticized by LGBTQ advocates and educators who contend it harms LGBTQ teachers and students. It has led some LGBTQ teachers in the state to leave their jobs.

As word begins to trickle out about the rule on teachers’ licenses, some LGBTQ Florida teachers are feeling alarmed.

Cassandra Oetinger-Kenski, a third-grade language arts teacher in Palm Beach County, said she is horrified, confused and attempting to figure out how this rule will change her ability to teach. Oetinger-Kenski, 38, is married to a woman.

She learned of the rule during a Thursday phone conversation with a reporter. Her attention was caught by the phrase about “intentionally” providing instruction, which she made several efforts to parse.

“If a child asks me about my husband and I say I don’t have a husband, I have a wife, am I then being stripped of my license?” Oetinger-Kenski asked. “Also, in my class I have kids with two dads and two moms.”

The new rule, Oetinger-Kenski said, “forces me to withhold information from my students, to lie. … Heterosexual people aren’t our entire population. That’s not the truth.”

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