By Ryan Dailey, The News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Ron DeSantis on Monday signed a controversial bill that will bar classroom instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity in early grades, characterizing the measure as a way to “protect students” and “support parents.”
Lawmakers approved the measure (HB 1557) during this year’s legislative session after heated debates and protesters converging on the Capitol. Dubbed by opponents as the “don’t say gay” bill, it has drawn national attention.
DeSantis signed the bill at a charter school in Spring Hill, flanked by Republican lawmakers and parents who said school employees had concealed information about issues such as taking steps to help facilitate children’s gender transition.
Saying that parents’ concerns about their children’s education are “being ignored increasingly” across the country, DeSantis lashed out at criticism of the bill.
“They support sexualizing kids in kindergarten,” DeSantis said of the bill’s critics. “They support injecting woke gender ideology into second-grade classrooms. They support enabling schools to, quote, transition students to a, quote, different gender without the knowledge of the parent. Much less, without the parents’ consent.”
Much of the seven-page bill is geared toward ensuring that schools cannot keep information from parents related to “critical decisions” about students’ well-being. School districts will be required to adopt procedures for notifying parents about any changes to services related to students’ mental, emotional or physical health.
But the part of the bill that fueled the controversy will prohibit instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through third-grade. For older grades, the bill will prohibit such instruction that “is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate” in accordance with state academic standards.
The bill’s detractors argued it will remove teachers as a lifeline for vulnerable LGBTQ youths and have a chilling effect on educators’ ability to talk about sensitive topics with students.
“The bill’s intentionally vague language leaves teachers afraid to talk to their students and opens up school districts to costly and frivolous litigation from those seeking to exclude LGBTQ people from any grade level. Even worse, #DontSayGay sends a hateful message to our most vulnerable youth who simply need our support,” Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, an Orlando Democrat who is gay, said in a statement.
Parents can sue school districts for violations of the bill. The measure also provides an alternative process for resolving disputes that involves hearings before a special magistrate.
DeSantis on Monday disputed the “don’t say gay” moniker and accused legislative opponents and other critics of “sloganeering.”
“You’ve seen a lot of sloganeering and fake narratives by leftist politicians, by activists, by corporate media. And you still see it even today after a lot of this stuff has been debunked. Now, it’s true, many of the people who whipped this up have never actually read the bill. They haven’t taken the time to do that, they would rather just further narratives,” DeSantis said.
The governor’s assertion drew an immediate rebuke from Senate Minority Leader Lauren Book, D-Plantation.
“Dismissive and uninformed Republicans (claim) the reason for national outrage is because we haven’t read the bill. We read it. So did medical professionals, educators, community leaders and parents. It is an attack on Florida’s LGBTQ+ community and our teachers,” Book said in a statement.
Fueled by the “don’t say gay” label, the bill has drawn high-profile attention, including being parodied on “Saturday Night Live” and lampooned Sunday night by actors at the Oscars. The Walt Disney Company released a statement after the bill’s signing that said the legislation “should never have passed” or received the governor’s signature.
But DeSantis hit back against Hollywood and corporations that have opposed the bill.
“Parents have a fundamental role in the education, health care and well-being of their children. We will not move from that. I don’t care what corporate media outlets say. I don’t care what Hollywood says. I don’t care what big corporations say,” the governor said during Monday’s bill-signing event.
Republican backers of the overall bill have argued that it is aimed at ensuring that schools do not “drive a wedge” between parents and children. The bill was given the title “Parental Rights in Education.”
“It’s about protecting parents’ ability to be involved, and it’s making sure the classroom instruction, particularly at these very young ages, are focused on math, science and reading,” DeSantis said.
State Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran, who joined DeSantis at the bill-signing event, said the Department of Education will begin work crafting regulations related to the bill, which will take effect in July.
“Once this bill is signed, now we can go and, whether it’s the standards, whether it’s the curriculum, whether it’s the professional development, work it out so that people have that clear understanding,” Corcoran said, adding that the bill sets “clear guardrails” about what is appropriate in the classroom.