By Ryan Dailey, The News Service of Tallahassee
TALLAHASSEE — The State Board of Education is slated this week to scrutinize LGBTQ support guides and bathroom policies for transgender students in 10 school districts, as state officials question whether they are violating a law known as the “Parents’ Bill of Rights” and other measures.
The Parents’ Bill of Rights relates to what families are entitled to know about their children’s education and health care.
Jacob Oliva, senior chancellor for the education department, wrote letters to school superintendents in the districts on Nov. 18, outlining parts of policies that Oliva said “may have not yet been updated” to comply with state law and education board rules. The state board will discuss the policies during a meeting Wednesday.
As an example, in a letter to Alachua County Superintendent of Schools Shane Andrew, Oliva pointed to four policies within a district guide. One of the policies focused on “student privacy.”
“All students’ privacy rights will be respected and personal information about the student, including their sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression, will not be shared without the students’ or parents’ consent,” the policy said, with the word “or” in bold and underlined.
Oliva also cited a controversial law (HB 1557) passed this year that, in part, was designed to prohibit classroom instruction in early grades about sexual orientation and gender identity.
Under the law, parents must be notified of a “change in the student’s services or monitoring related to the student’s mental, emotional, or physical health or well-being and the school’s ability to provide a safe and supportive learning environment” for the student.
“This could include matters related to a student’s privacy, name and pronoun usage, and restroom and locker room usage,” Oliva wrote.
Scrutiny of LGBTQ support guides was initiated after State Board of Education member Ryan Petty during an August board meeting expressed “grave concerns” about whether certain parts of some districts’ support-guide documents ran afoul of state law.
Education Commissioner Manny Diaz during the August meeting gave his staff the go-ahead to review support documents at all school districts.
But Brandon Wolf, the press secretary of LGBTQ-advocacy organization Equality Florida, criticized the education department’s targeting of the guides.
“Equality Florida’s grave concern is for the protection of LGBTQ students. The Department of Education’s record on these issues has demonstrated clear hostility toward those protections,” Wolf told The News Service of Florida after the August meeting.
Oliva’s missives to school officials in Alachua County and other districts similarly took aim at policies regarding students’ pronouns and rules guiding bathroom and locker-room access.
In a letter to Brevard County Superintendent of Schools Mark Mullins, Oliva took issue with parts of a document entitled “Brevard County Schools: LGBTQ+ District Guidance.”
One part of the Brevard document said that all students “are allowed to access locker rooms and restrooms that are consistent with their gender identity or be provided appropriate accommodations.”
Decisions about such accommodations, the document said, “should be student driven and with district support on a case-by-case basis.”
Oliva again noted that the policy, and any others that may not correspond with state law, would need revision.
“After initial review of the policies and procedures submitted by Brevard County Schools, it appears that some of these policies or procedures may have not yet been updated to comply with revised Florida law and State Board of Education rule. This list is not exhaustive, and your district should strive to review all its policies and procedures for other provisions that may not comport with Florida law,” Oliva wrote.
The state education board’s scrutiny of bathroom and locker-room policies came after the board in October approved a rule that requires districts to notify parents of such guidelines.
“This rule will allow both students and parents to have full knowledge if bathrooms and locker rooms will not be separated by biological sex at birth; therefore, allowing them to make informed decisions and requests for accommodations or modification,” a summary of the rule posted to the Florida Administrative Code said.
Policies that deal with other issues, such as a racial-equity policy used in Indian River County Schools, also will come under scrutiny during Wednesday’s meeting.
“This policy confronts the institutional racism that results in predictably lower academic achievement for students of color than for their white peers,” a part of the policy said.
But Oliva wrote in a letter to Indian River County Superintendent of Schools David Moore that the policy may not comply with a state law related to discrimination against public-school students and employees.
The board’s meeting this week will focus on policies in Alachua, Brevard, Broward, Duval, Hillsborough, Indian River, Leon, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties. Policies within a parent-student handbook for the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind also is slated for discussion during the meeting.