The House is one step closer to voting on controversial parental rights legislation governing schools, dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill by opponents.
The House spent over two hours on the legislation (HB 1557) sponsored by Republican Rep. Joe Harding. The proposal made it through its second reading Tuesday afternoon before the House. It now awaits a third reading, in which lawmakers will decide the bill’s fate.
The legislation would ban classroom “instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity” for students in kindergarten through third grade, or “in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards.” The legislation does not restrict the topics from being barred across all ages if the school district deems the instruction age-inappropriate.
Parents who think a classroom discussion was not age-appropriate or who are unsupportive of a district’s policies would be able to sue for damages and attorney’s fees.
“We believe that the best environment for students is an environment where the parent is empowered and involved and working concurrently with the school district, and that is the bill,” Harding said.
With less than an hour before Session, Harding withdrew a controversial amendment he tacked on the bill last Friday.
The bill, without the amendment, allows schools not to disclose information to parents about a child’s “mental, emotional, or physical health or well-being” if that information “would result in abuse, abandonment, or neglect.” Harding’s amendment, however, would have required schools to inform parents within six weeks about such a decision to “withhold such information.”
Democratic lawmakers immediately pushed back on the amendment, arguing that it would require school staff to “out” students to their parents.
The amendment received so much criticism that Harding made clear when presenting the bill that it would not out LGBTQ students. And, with alterations made to the legislation at its previous committee stop, Harding pushed back on the bill being nicknamed the “Don’t Say Gay” proposal.
“I also wanted to just clarify — nowhere in the bill is the school district required to out a student,” Harding said. “Nowhere in the bill are we limiting the speech of the students. What the school is required to do under this bill is to seek to not drive a wedge between the student and the school district.”
Harding was able to clear another amendment Tuesday, however, that would provide another process for parents to work out issues with the school before pursuing legal action. If a concern is not resolved by the school district, the amendment would allow the Department of Education to appoint a special magistrate to resolve the dispute via the request of the parent. The parent could also choose to pursue a lawsuit.
“This amendment is necessary because it’s good policy to create a level playing field for parents that may not have necessary means,” Harding said. “This amendment gives them a path to seek relief when the parent is being pushed out by the school and not being involved in critical decisions.”
In addition to instructional guidelines, the legislation would also limit confidentiality between students and school personnel, requiring that a school district “may not adopt procedures or student support forms that prohibit school district personnel from notifying a parent about his or her student’s mental, emotional, or physical health or well-being, or a change in related services or monitoring, or that encourage or have the effect of encouraging a student to withhold from a parent such information.”
School personnel are only permitted to withhold such information from a parent “if a reasonably prudent person would believe that disclosure would result in abuse, abandonment, or neglect,” the bill reads.
Democrats attempted to remedy the legislation to be more friendly to LGBTQ students in a slew of unsuccessful amendments.
One amendment brought by Rep. Angie Nixon, a Jacksonville Democrat, would allow school personnel to withhold such information from a parent if it would out a LGBTQ student without that student’s consent, or ask the school not to disclose information. The amendment failed.
“Teachers and counselors are people that students should be able to trust in confidence,” Nixon said. “This amendment ensures that the trust will not be weaponized against a student who comes out to a teacher or counselor but isn’t comfortable with sharing the information further.”
Another amendment, brought by Pinellas County Democratic Rep. Michele Rayner, the first openly gay Black woman elected to the Florida Legislature, removed the provision in the bill that prohibits the instruction of LGBTQ matters.
“Our babies have more tolerance and love than a lot of us in this room,” Rayner said. “Love needs to guide the legislation. And I may get in trouble for this, but I will tell you — if you vote down on this amendment, you’re voting against me and Rep. (Carlos Guillermo) Smith, our humanity and who we are.”
Democrats also poked at the bill on the floor during questioning and debate.
“At what point do the rights of a parent end and do the rights of a child begin?” Rep. Smith asked. “When we develop policies that prioritize parental rights at all costs, including at the expense of our students and our kids, and their well-being, there are consequences.”
While Democrats continued to refer to the legislation as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, Harding insisted that the legislation doesn’t prohibit personal discussion.
“This isn’t about targeting any specific type of gender or sexual orientation. What we’re saying within the bill is … that the instruction relating to those topics at those ages is a conversation that’s best to be had at home and not should not be part of the instruction of the school,” Harding said.
However, the vague language of the bill, and its enforcement through litigation, continued to draw passion from Democrats that the legislation would — even if unintentionally — hurt the progress that has been made by LGBTQ students and their families.
“It lets folks sue the school if they think any conversation about LGBTQ people is not age appropriate. Listen, this is pandering to the lowest common denominator,” Smith said. “This bill is a dream for trial lawyers.”
Rep. Ben Diamond attempted to remove the cause of action in the bill through an unsuccessful amendment, citing the potential costs.
“It censors instruction — and worse, inclusion — of LGBTQ Floridians who are a healthy and normal part of our society and of our schools. A person’s sexual orientation is not about who they have sex with, members, it’s about who they love,” Smith said. “Censoring it, banning it, telling schools they can’t say ‘gay’ or can’t say ‘trans’ as part of instruction, means that we are slowly being erased.”
The version approved by the House Tuesday varied slightly from its Senate counterpart, seemingly attempting to address previous criticisms of vague language.
The legislation has been the subject of controversy, drawing public criticism from physicians, members of the LGBTQ community, LGBTQ advocacy organizations, the Florida PTA and ACLU Florida at committee hearings. Proponents of the bill have included Florida Citizens Alliance, Christian Family Coalition and the Florida Family Rights Council.
The bill has also drawn national attention, including criticism from the White House, which denounced the bill as “hateful.”