Community members who attended the School Board of Alachua County (SBAC) meeting Tuesday evening arrived with concerns and left with assurances from the board, but no updated LGBTQ+ guide for the district yet.
The LGBTQ+ guide was on the agenda as a discussion item. Dozens of community members used their three-minute public comment time to ensure their concerns were known, giving the board plenty to discuss.
“LGBTQ+ employees came to Alachua County because this was a haven,” Carmen Ward, president of the Alachua County Education Association, told the board. “Compared to everyone outside of Alachua County, this was a place where we could be truly accepted and honored, and I definitely think that this leadership will make good decisions.”
A state law called “Parental Rights in Education,” also labeled “don't say gay” by its critics, updated over the summer to cover kindergarten through grade 12. The law took effect in 2022 to limit classroom instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity but originally only applied to kindergarten through grade 3.
Florida also introduced a new education law in July which requires specific terminology and instruction for teaching health and reproductive education. Another July law prohibits people from using restrooms intended for those of a different sex than what they were assigned at birth.
Community members at Tuesday’s meeting highlighted concerns over Gender-Sexuality Alliance clubs (GSAs) being allowed in schools, students being allowed to use their preferred bathroom without special permission or keys, teachers calling students by their preferred names and pronouns and LGBTQ+ teachers being allowed to mention their families and display pictures of their partners in their classrooms.
Their arguments often hinged around the rights of every parent, including LGBTQ+ parents, and the importance of keeping students safe and supported. Several cited statistics showing LGBTQ+ children are at higher risk of suicide and have more tenuous mental health in general because they do not feel supported.
“Giving respect to LGBTQ students and faculty will not turn straight students into queer students, but that respect will keep queer kids from being dead kids,” Tamara Deutsch said told the board.
These laws have room for interpretation, which is why the district has an LGBTQ+ guide and procedures in place to help LGBTQ+ students feel supported within the law. Yet many community members and teachers were worried about a strict application of the law they had heard implied in various memos and meetings.
Perhaps the most impactful of the meetings was a legislative update for the Florida Association of District School Superintendents (FADSS) in July, where an attorney described recommendations for how the law is intended and how to apply it. The buzz after that meeting led to a large turnout at the school board meeting earlier this month, where many of the same community members lined up at the podium to ask for more lenient application of the law.
“The practice of disseminating critical information by word of mouth leaves the safety of our students and our district’s compliance with state and federal statutes to an awkward game of telephone,” Board member Sarah Rockwell said. “At the last board meeting and again at this boarding board meeting we've seen how this has led to confusion and fear.”
Part of the problem, as several board members mentioned, is that the school district does not currently have a staff attorney. David Delaney, the school board’s attorney, has helped administrative staff on a few occasions, but he does not have the time to provide the interpretation and aid they need. Superintendent Shane Andrew said that will change soon, as a new staff attorney is coming.
“So much is being thrown out there to cause division among us... let’s not let that create so much noise and commotion that we don’t go back to what we’ve always done good,” Andrew said. He said that while the district has fallen short of academic achievement, it maintains a strong focus on supporting each student.
Andrew told the board he could have a draft of the updated LGBTQ+ guide ready for the Sept. 5 board meeting. Administrative staff has been trying to look at how other districts are approaching the issue, but Andrew said so far there he has only seen six other guides in the 67 Florida school districts. The SBAC last updated its guide in December 2021, though staff also made a few changes in February this year.
For the time being, Alachua County Public Schools Chief of Equity, Inclusion, and Community Engagement Anntwanique Edwards said all the community members’ concerns are being addressed. She said the district is working on signage and testing locks on single-occupant restrooms and has accepted over 2,000 forms from parents for their children to be addressed by preferred names.
Edwards said the rumored ban on family photos for LGBTQ+ teachers does not exist because it does not count as instructional time, and GSAs have always been allowed on school campuses.