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Florida Teachers Prepare for Censorship as Conservative Legislation Takes Effect

The “Don’t Say Gay” and “Stop WOKE Act” bills censor conversations about gender, sexuality and race in schools.

Revelers celebrate on 7th Avenue during the Tampa Pride Parade in the Ybor City neighborhood on March 26, 2022, in Tampa, Florida.

Teachers across Florida are preparing for increased censorship as the 2022-23 school year begins. Conservative legislation like “Don’t Say Gay” and “Stop WOKE Act” officially took effect over the summer, placing added pressure and parental surveillance on teachers while censoring conversations surrounding gender, sexuality, and race. The two bills, in addition to a suite of three other educational censorship laws, regulate whether and how educators may discuss certain subjects and ideas. In both pieces of legislation, parents have been given the power to litigate the teacher and school for discussing anything they determine falls under the prohibited categories. Since the language used in the legislation is vague and open to interpretation, teachers are already reporting harmless educational books being banned from the classroom. As confusion continues and administrators jump to extreme measures to protect themselves from litigation, entire LGBTQ+ identities and the country’s honest racial history are being erased from Florida’s public school education system—and the children who need that representation and visibility the most are the ones who will feel the greatest loss.

“What’s going on is having a disastrous effect on schools as they prepare for the new school year,” said Jonathan Friedman, PEN America’s director of free expression and education programs. “It impacts, in particular, LGBTQ+ individuals or students of color, who may not have access to books that can mirror their lives, but also everybody in the access to diverse literature, stories from different perspectives, stories that offer critical lenses on society today. It is a backlash to emerging identities and how they are moving in from the margin that is driving a lot of the erasure.”

The Collier County School District recently placed a warning label on more than 100 books in the district’s library system related to race or LGBTQ+ identity. The labels are in the district’s online catalog, and physical labels are also attached to hard copies of the same books. Even children’s books, including “Everywhere Babies” and “Julián is a Mermaid,” which tells a heartwarming story about a young boy who wants to be a mermaid, were among the titles labeled.

The warning reads, “this book has been identified by some community members as unsuitable for students.”

“This alarming development is just the latest in an onslaught of attacks against students’ freedom to read in Florida,” Friedman said. “Even if access to these books is not technically restricted, the labeling of these books risks attaching a stigma to the topics they cover and the books themselves. Under the guise of ‘parental rights,’ interest groups have been empowered by opportunistic elected officials and are now hijacking public schools. Every child deserves the right to learn from a diverse set of voices and perspectives, and to freely access the books they wish to read.”

In Brevard Public Schools, Jane Cline, assistant superintendent for elementary leading and learning, said teachers are “taking a pause” entirely on classroom libraries until they are able to retrain media specialists to vet all books available to students.

In Palm Beach County, teachers were told to remove certain books from their classroom libraries and that all instructional materials available to their K-12 students, including classroom libraries, must be reviewed for compliance. Teachers have also been told to fill out an extensive checklist to see if the school’s library media specialist needs to review their class library. According to the checklist, a book available to students in grades K-3 with a storyline where a character questions their own gender or sexual orientation should be submitted for review. In addition, the checklist also asks if the book promotes, compels, or encourages a student to believe “[p]eople are racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously.” Any mention or reference to the 1619 Project will also not be allowed. Lastly, the checklist prohibits any books that propose that racism is currently embedded in American society and its legal systems to uphold white supremacy.

Duval County Public Schools even took down a 12-minute anti-bullying video that taught students how to support their gay and transgender peers. Meanwhile, in Orange County, Gretchen Robinson, a middle and high school math teacher, said the school board issued a memo instructing that the anti-bullying measures are to be fully kept in place.

“The messaging is you folks that have been traditionally marginalized are getting too comfortable being a lot less marginalized, and we need to push back,” said Robinson, who has been teaching for 22 years and has been the Gay-Straight Alliance sponsor in the past. “Kids need to be exposed to what’s out there in the world. That’s why they’re getting an education.”

In Miami-Dade County, the school board voted to ban a sexual health textbook for middle and high schoolers from the system’s classrooms out of fear that it would not be in compliance with the law. The same school board only reversed their decision after they realized they would be out of compliance with state law that requires a sexual health textbook. The book in question addresses emergency contraception, natural methods like withdrawal, gender identity, and sexual orientation.

Nicole Swanson, a high school biology teacher in Miami-Dade County, spoke at the school board meeting in support of the textbooks because she was absolutely shocked when she learned it was even being brought to a vote.

“​​[I thought] this is just stupid, it’s crazy,” Swanson said. “We’re mandated to teach sex education it’s in the curriculum. I couldn’t get over how idiotic it was.”

Since then, Swanson says her principal has to hire a media specialist to review the textbooks at their school, just like other schools across Florida.

“It’s a slippery slope,” Swanson said. “You take away the textbook, and then you take away the curriculum, and then you can’t teach tech sex ed anymore. That one textbook is a reliable source. It’s not some weird Facebook article that we’re giving kids. It’s something of substance, and you’re telling kids, no, this is not reliable anymore. It makes a kid start thinking, ‘Oh, maybe we shouldn’t trust textbooks anymore.’”

Robinson said her administration has not issued any guidance for how to approach the legislation other than it does not apply to them since they do not teach K-3. But a colleague of hers at another school reported their principal told them that if a student came out to them, the teacher was obligated to contact the parents.

“No way am I going to do that,” Robinson said. “That’s a breach of trust. I’m concerned about some of the other school districts where the school board might not be as supportive of teachers who choose to carry on 100% supporting their LGBTQ+ students and also their Black and brown students.”

A middle school social studies teacher in Miami-Dade, who requested to remain anonymous, said he is concerned about how the new laws will impact his curriculum, which includes civil rights and landmark LGBTQ+ rights cases.

“How do I teach those now?” he said. “It’s definitely more challenging, and it seems more daunting. Now it’s kind of like teachers versus parents.”

Swanson and other teachers hope legislators will ease off of education and just let them teach.

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