Florida students and teachers permitted to use the term ‘gay’ while schools are prohibited from discriminating

Attorneys who represent a group of Florida students, parents, and teachers have reached a settlement in a lawsuit challenging the state’s ban on classroom instruction involving LGBTQ individuals and subjects. Although lessons specifically focusing on sexual orientation and gender identity remain prohibited, the agreement allows for in-school classroom discussions on these topics. Additionally, schools are now required to prevent discrimination and bullying based on sexual orientation and gender identity, clarifying that the “Don’t Say Gay” law does not extend to the censorship of books.

The settlement mandates that instruction regarding LGBTQ matters must be neutral, ensuring that endeavors like depicting heterosexuality as preferable are prohibited.

“The state of Florida has now acknowledged that LGBTQ+ individuals in Florida can express their sexual orientation, parents, and teachers,” stated Roberta Kaplan, the lead attorney for the plaintiffs.

Apart from representing the Florida plaintiffs, Kaplan notably worked on cases such as Edie Windsor’s Defense of Marriage Act challenge and E. Jean Carroll’s defamation lawsuit against former President Donald Trump.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis praised the settlement as a significant victory, emphasizing that his Parental Rights in Education Act remains in effect despite the agreement. The law, originally banning LGBTQ-related teaching from kindergarten to third grade, was later expanded last year to encompass most grades.

Citing the law’s broad and vague nature, school administrators have removed pride symbols and stickers from classrooms, emptied bookshelves, and failed to address LGBTQ parents’ concerns about potential repercussions for discussing their families.

Katie Blankenship, the director of PEN America’s Florida chapter, highlighted the initial stringent restrictions that discouraged any LGBTQ-related conversations among teachers and students.

Furthermore, Florida’s Board of Education issued rules threatening teachers with license revocation if they breached instructional constraints or possessed books featuring LGBTQ themes, despite the absence of such sanctions in the law.

In a published survey by UCLA’s Williams Institute in January 2023, nearly 9 out of 10 queer parents expressed fears about the law’s impact. Over half contemplated leaving the state, and a quarter reported harassment since its enactment.

The current agreement requires educational officials to distribute the settlement to all school boards in the state, outlining permissible in-school LGBTQ discussions and legal obligations for safeguarding students and educators against harassment and discrimination.

Classroom instruction is defined as “the formal work of teaching,” with certain restrictions, such as teaching modern gender theories, mentioned as prohibited. However, mere discussions on LGBTQ topics or a student’s choice to address their sexual orientation are not banned.

Despite the settlement, Blankenship anticipates varied compliance levels due to community demographics, foreseeing ease in some areas and challenges in others.

The impact of the Florida law has spurred similar legislation in other states and caused increased anti-LGBTQ violence in schools. Advocacy groups suggest rising levels of fear, self-censorship among educators, and a decline in supportive programs for LGBTQ students.

The U.S. Department of Education has initiated an investigation into the death of nonbinary student Nex Benedict in Oklahoma following a bathroom altercation, further emphasizing challenges faced by LGBTQ individuals in educational settings.

An Oklahoma law in 2022 compelled Nex to use the girls’ bathroom, demonstrating unsafety for transgender youth within school environments.

Data from GLSEN and The Trevor Project indicates a surge in anti-LGBTQ incidents within classrooms across several states, raising concerns beyond those directly impacted by the new laws. Blankenship views the settlement as a positive step in dispelling fear among LGBTQ youth.

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