Florida DOE may ‘force us to out’ students to parents, Leon County superintendent says

Tallahassee Democrat | By Ana Goñi-Lessan | December 12, 2022

“I’m concerned that the Florida Department of Education is trying to force us to out students who are not ready to come out,” said Superintendent Rocky Hanna.

Leon County Schools’ may have to inform parents of their students’ sexual identity to remain compliant with the Parental Rights in Education law, school district officials fear.

The school district has spent weeks retooling its LGBTQ+ guide as a response to the Florida Department of Education, which says the district’s policies – specifically one that states “a student’s sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression should not be shared with others without their input or permission” – does not comply with state statute.

“Florida parents have a right to be fully informed of the education and the education services being provided to their students,” stated Senior Chancellor Jacob Oliva in a letter dated Nov. 18.

“This could include matters related to a student’s privacy,” he continued.

Over the summer, the district’s LGBTQ+ advisory committee established a policy for parental notification that said if a student requested accommodations or needed mental, emotional or physical help, the school would intervene and tell the parents.

“If we’re teaching a math class and a kid mentions that he’s gay and he doesn’t meet any of those thresholds, right now, we don’t tell anybody, we just move on with the lesson,” said Alan Cox, assistant superintendent.

DOE’s request for compliance, however, required the district to edit its parental notification policy.

“It appears as though the department of education is trying to force us down a path that’s even more narrow than what is required by law,” said Leon County Schools Superintendent Rocky Hanna. “I’m concerned that the Florida Department of Education is trying to force us to out students who are not ready to come out.”

The district, which had to send a revision of the LGBTQ+ guide to DOE by Friday, added a section to the guide that explicitly states the role of the school district and refers to the Parents’ Bill of Rights.

“School personnel will notify a parent if there is a change in the student’s services or monitoring relating to the student’s mental, emotional or physical health or well-being,” the new guide states.

What “well-being” means could be up for debate.

“If a student confides in a teacher but is not in jeopardy, we feel that student’s privacy rights should be honored. But I’m afraid that the department of education and the powers that be don’t agree with that philosophy,” Hanna said. “We owe our students, unless they are in crisis or showing signs of self-harm or abuse, we owe them privacy protection.”

Leon County was one of 31 school districts that turned in an LGBTQ guide to the department of education, Cox said.

Alachua, Brevard, Broward, Duval, Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind, Hillsborough, Indian River, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach Counties also received letters from DOE about non-compliance in their guides.

Those county school boards also came under fire by the DeSantis administration for implementing mask mandates that circumvented his executive order. State leaders threatened to withhold school board member salaries and bonuses for those school districts’ employees until they complied.

As of Friday, Alachua County and Brevard County have scrapped their LGBTQ guides.

In Leon County, if a child requires a change to their student services or monitoring for their mental, emotional or physical well-being but the district believes notification would lead to abuse, the student’s case will be referred to the Florida Department of Children and Families.

Leon County has had an LGBTQ+ guide since 2014, but it was revised after the parents of a local middle school child complained that it overstepped their parental rights.

The parents allege the district spoke to their teen about gender identity without parental consent. Leon County Schools administrators maintain a parent gave the school permission to let the child “take the lead” in discussions.

The Child & Parental Rights Campaign and the parents are plaintiffs in a lawsuit in federal court that asks for the district to change its LGBTQ+ guide to adhere to Florida’s Parents’ Bill of Rights. That suit is currently in mediation.

The lawsuit against the district was a catalyst in the creation of the Parental Rights in Education Bill (HB 1557). It has come to be known as “Don’t Say Gay,” a nickname given to the bill, now law, by critics that include gay lawmakers and LGBTQ advocates.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis took the opportunity while signing the bill in March to target Leon County and other counties in the state for indoctrinating students with “transgender ideology” during the press conference.

“They don’t want any protections for parents. They think they should just be able to take your kid and do whatever the hell they want with them,” DeSantis said.

Cox said he has not received any complaints about the district’s LGBTQ+ guide this fall since it was revised. Last year, the district had five transgender students who asked for accommodations. Leon County Schools has a student population of over 30,000 students.

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