Problems with the legislation remain, including vague prohibitions that will likely bury schools in lawsuits.
Students at Gaither High School in Tampa protest against H.B. 1557 on Feb. 14, 2022. (Ivy Ceballo/ZUMA Press/Newscom)
The Florida House of Representatives on Thursday passed a bill which seeks to limit discussion of gender and sexuality in public schools. However, the bill is moving forward without its most controversial amendment: a requirement that schools disclose to parents any changes in a student’s “emotional, mental, or physical” health.
According to supporters of House Bill 1557—formally titled the Parental Rights in Education bill and labeled the “Don’t Say Gay” bill by critics—its purpose is primarily to support parents’ rights to prevent their children from being taught certain concepts about sexuality. “We’ve seen instances of students being told by different folks in school, ‘Oh, don’t worry. Don’t pick your gender yet. Do all this other stuff,'” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) said in early February. “They won’t tell the parents about these discussions that are happening. That is entirely inappropriate. Schools need to be teaching kids to read, to write.”
The bill has drawn the ire of civil liberties and LGBT groups since its introduction in January, but drew national attention earlier this month when bill co-sponsor Rep. Joe Harding (R–Williston) introduced an amendment that would have required school principals to share with parents “child-specific information personally known to the school personnel.”
As Reason‘s Scott Shackford noted, the amendment “pushes school personnel to violate student privacy by telling parents about the student’s well-being even if the student doesn’t want it (thus potentially outing kids who have turned to school staff for help on an issue they don’t want to discuss with parents).”
On Tuesday, Harding withdrew the amendment, saying in a statement to the Tallahassee Democrat that “nothing in the amendment was about outing a student.” Harding previously told media that he wanted opponents of his legislation “to go on record to say it’s OK for a six-year-old to have one identity in school and one at home because the school encourages that kind of behavior.”
Even without the amendment, however, Shackford anticipates that Harding’s bill “clears parents (and lawyers) to sue and get damages if schools break the extremely vague guidelines described in the bill.”
That’s because, like other education bills sweeping state legislatures, Florida’s H.B. 1557 has a major flaw: the bill’s vagueness will likely ensure that the scope of the intended censorship exceeds the intent of the bill authors.
The bill says that “classroom instruction by school personnel or third parties on sexual orientation or gender identity may not occur in kindergarten through grade three or in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards.” If schools violate these rules, parents can sue them. But those “standards” are clear as mud.
Can a high school English class teach Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, a novel which contains an implied lesbian relationship? Can that same school’s library stock a popular young adult novel with LGBT characters? Can a gay elementary school teacher put a family photo on his desk?
These questions are already plaguing schools in several states with similar bills. In Idaho, which passed a bill banning critical race theory, Boise State abruptly canceled 52 classes. A Texas administrator, unsure of how to interpret her own state’s recent bill requiring “balance” when teaching divisive issues, encouraged teachers to “make sure that if you have a book on the Holocaust, you have one that has an opposing, that has other perspectives.”
H.B. 1557 passed the Republican-controlled House with 69 votes in favor, 47 opposed, and three abstentions. It now heads to the Senate, where Republicans hold 24 seats to Democrats’ 15.