Florida Teachers Prepare for Censorship as Conservative Legislation Takes Effect

Florida teachers are preparing for increased censorshipAs the 2022-23 schoolyear begins. Conservative legislation like “Don’t Say Gay” and “Stop WOKE Act” officially took effect over the summer, placing added pressure and parental surveillance on teachers while censoring conversations surrounding gender, sexuality, and race. These bills, along with a suite of three other educational censorship lawsRegulations that regulate how educators can discuss certain topics and ideas. Both pieces of legislation give parents the power to sue teachers and schools for discussing anything they believe falls under the prohibited categories. Teachers are already reporting that harmless educational books have been banned from their classrooms due to the vagueness and openness of the legislation’s language. As confusion continues and administrators jump to extreme measures to protect themselves from litigation, entire LGBTQ+ identities and the country’s honest racial history are being erased from Florida’s public school education system—and the children who need that representation and visibility the most are the ones who will feel the greatest loss.

“What’s going on is having a disastrous effect on schools as they prepare for the new school year,” said Jonathan Friedman, PEN America’s director of free expression and education programs. “It impacts, in particular, LGBTQ+ individuals or students of color, who may not have access to books that can mirror their lives, but also everybody in the access to diverse literature, stories from different perspectives, stories that offer critical lenses on society today. It is a backlash to emerging identities and how they are moving in from the margin that is driving a lot of the erasure.”

The Collier County Schools District recently placed a warning label on more than 100 books in the district’s library system related to race or LGBTQ+ identity. The labels are in the district’s online catalog, and physical labels are also attached to hard copies of the same books. Even children’s books, including “Everywhere Babies” and “Julián is a Mermaid,” which tells a heartwarming story about a young boy who wants to be a mermaid, were among the titles labeled.

The warning reads, “this book has been identified by some community members as unsuitable for students.”

“This alarming development is just the latest in an onslaught of attacks against students’ freedom to read in Florida,” Friedman said. “Even if access to these books is not technically restricted, the labeling of these books risks attaching a stigma to the topics they cover and the books themselves. Under the guise of ‘parental rights,’ interest groups have been empowered by opportunistic elected officials and are now hijacking public schools. Every child deserves the right to learn from a diverse set of voices and perspectives, and to freely access the books they wish to read.”

In Brevard Public Schools, Jane Cline, assistant superintendent for elementary leading and learning, said teachers are “taking a pause” entirely on classroom libraries until they are able to retrain media specialists to vet all books available to students.

Teachers were employed in Palm Beach County. told to remove certain books They must ensure compliance with all instructional materials, including those in their classroom libraries. Teachers have also been told to fill out an extensive checklist to see if the school’s library media specialist needs to review their class library. The checklist states that students in grades K-3 should submit a book with a storyline that questions their gender or sexual orientation. In addition, the checklist also asks if the book promotes, compels, or encourages a student to believe “[p]eople are racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously.” Any mention or reference to the 1619 Project will also not be allowed. The checklist also prohibits books that suggest that racism is embedded in American society and its legal system to uphold white supremacy.

Duval County Public Schools even took down A 12-minute anti-bullying video which teaches students how to support gay and transgender friends. Gretchen Robinson (a middle and high-school math teacher) said that in Orange County, a memo was issued by the school board directing that anti-bullying measures be fully maintained.

“The messaging is you folks that have been traditionally marginalized are getting too comfortable being a lot less marginalized, and we need to push back,” said Robinson, who has been teaching for 22 years and has been the Gay-Straight Alliance sponsor in the past. “Kids need to be exposed to what’s out there in the world. That’s why they’re getting an education.”

The county of Miami-Dade is home to the school board voted to ban a sexual health textbook for middle and high schoolers from the system’s classrooms out of fear that it would not be in compliance with the law. The same school board reversed their decision After realizing they were not in compliance with the state law that required a sexual health manual, they decided to change their ways. The book covers emergency contraception, natural methods such as withdrawal, gender identity and sexual orientation.

Nicole Swanson, high school biology teacher from Miami-Dade County, spoke in support of the textbooks at the school board meeting because she was stunned to learn that it was being brought up for a vote.

“​​[I thought] this is just stupid, it’s crazy,” Swanson said. “We’re mandated to teach sex education it’s in the curriculum. I couldn’t get over how idiotic it was.”

Swanson claims that her principal must now hire a media specialist in order to review the textbooks at the school. This is just like other schools in Florida.

“It’s a slippery slope,” Swanson said. “You take away the textbook, and then you take away the curriculum, and then you can’t teach tech sex ed anymore. This one textbook is a reliable source. It’s not some weird Facebook article that we’re giving kids. It’s something of substance, and you’re telling kids, no, this is not reliable anymore. It makes a kid start thinking, ‘Oh, maybe we shouldn’t trust textbooks anymore.’”

Robinson stated that her administration has not provided any guidance on how to approach the legislation, other than the fact that it doesn’t apply to them because they don’t teach K-3. However, a colleague at her school reported that their principal had told them that if a student came to them, the teacher was required to contact the parents.

“No way am I going to do that,” Robinson said. “That’s a breach of trust. I’m concerned about some of the other school districts where the school board might not be as supportive of teachers who choose to carry on 100% supporting their LGBTQ+ students and also their Black and brown students.”

A middle school social studies teacher from Miami-Dade asked to remain anonymous because he is concerned about the impact of new laws on his curriculum. His curriculum includes landmark LGBTQ+ rights cases and civil rights.

“How do I teach those now?” he said. “It’s definitely more challenging, and it seems more daunting. Now it’s kind of like teachers versus parents.”

Swanson and other teachers believe legislators will relax on education and let them teach.

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