Columns, Opinion

Highway to Health: Florida’s Parental Rights in Education bill endangers health, well-being of LGBTQ youth

On March 28, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed into law the Parental Rights in Education bill. The bill is isolating, discriminatory and a safety concern for young people in the LGBTQ community and those who are at high risk of mental health conditions.

Opponents of the bill have labeled it the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. This is because lines 97-101 state, “Classroom instruction by school personnel or third parties on sexual orientation or gender identity may not occur in kindergarten through grade 3 or in a manner that is not age appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards.”

In other words, teachers — or other school personnel or persons deemed “third party” by the parents — are prohibited from discussing any details about sexual orientation or gender identity with children under 4th grade, and those who disobey this rule may be subject to a lawsuit from parents.

While the bill does not explicitly state individual sexual orientation terms may not be used in primary school above grade three, the bill is subjective enough for parents to mandate school officials do not say the word “gay” around their children. 

Obviating identifying and inclusive conversations from primary education places students who identify with these terms into a box. No student — no matter what age — should be prohibited from exploring who they are and identifying themselves.

Smaran Ramidi / DFP Staff

This bill creates even further divides between LGBTQ youth and their parents, peers and teachers because it perpetuates the idea that sexual orientation and gender identity are taboo topics by eliminating such topics from classroom conversation.

Teachers fear the negative consequences of the new law in place. Educators have expressed the fact that some young children — children who are not yet above grade three — have questions about what family looks like, and some of these kids may have two moms or two dads.

Children have demonstrated knowledge of gender groups as early as three years of age. An article by Mayo Clinic discusses how children are reinforced by gender stereotypes, and may behave in a way that brings them the most reward rather than what aligns with their true gender identity. Parents stigmatizing the various gender identities could create the rigidity described here. 

The Mayo Clinic article also explains that increasing age typically leads to increased awareness of different gender identities and expressions — something that has the potential to emerge before 3rd grade. This bill ignores this fact and has its own agenda for determining when conversations about sexual orientation are appropriate.

Teachers should have the right to make their classrooms safe and supportive environments for every child they encounter at every age, and they are there to provide resources for children who need extra aid — something this bill could make challenging. 

Removing classroom discussions about sexual orientation and gender identity will likely increase the already high rates of mental health conditions and suicidal thoughts or behaviors in LGBTQ youth. 

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, rejection from family, peers and faith communities is a significant reason why LGBTQ youth have high rates of mental health conditions and suicidality. In a 2019 school climate survey, 86.3% of LGBTQ youth reported being harassed or assaulted at school because of their known or perceived identity. 

If this bill is abused to the extent of its subjective nature, teachers will not be able to discuss bullying behaviors about sexual orientation or gender identity in the classroom, leaving thousands of LGBTQ students to suffer in silence. This could have devastating health effects. 

This bill also requires well-being questionnaires be vetted by parents before distribution in kindergarten through grade three. This may lead to unwanted questioning from parents to students. Parents will also be notified of any healthcare services provided to their children by the school, regardless of grade, and they can decline specific services as they see fit for their kids.

Students should possess the right to have confidential conversations with school officials and counselors about their mental health, sexual orientation, gender or other health-related topics. If parents are able to access and decline their child’s mental or emotional health services, safety could be compromised for children who would like to avoid declaring their health conditions to their parents.

The bill includes a section that may cover this. It states the school can withhold health information “if a reasonably prudent person would believe that disclosure would result in abuse, abandonment, or neglect.” However, the children themselves should be considered prudent enough to declare that they fear for their own safety if sensitive information about their health is disclosed to their parents.

The health and well-being of LGBTQ students will be disproportionately and negatively affected by the subjective statements in the Parental Rights in Education bill.  We must stand for, and with, the marginalized communities affected by this bill, and make others aware of the fear and isolation they are inciting by supporting it. 

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