Aug 17, 2022 - News

Miami teachers vow to help LGBTQ+ students feel safe under "Don't Say Gay"

Illustration of a stack of rainbow and a stack of red books leaning on each other.
Illustration: Allie Carl/Axios

Fears of pushback from parents didn't stop Miami teacher Elizabeth Morales from filling her classroom with rainbow decorations for the start of school Wednesday.

  • But Morales tells Axios she is worried about how Florida's Parental Rights in Education law — dubbed "Don't Say Gay" by critics — will impact conversations she can have with students about their sexual orientation and gender identity.

Why it matters: Teachers in Miami-Dade County Public Schools — the largest school district in Florida — are about to start their first school year under the new law. Some say they are concerned about navigating the law's restrictions and about the harm it might cause LGBTQ+ students.

Context: The Parental Rights in Education law prohibits classroom instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity in kindergarten through third grade — as well as instruction that is not "age appropriate" for older students.

  • It also requires schools to notify parents if a student is receiving services for mental, emotional or physical health issues — and allows parents to sue school districts over alleged violations.
  • Critics say the law could stifle conversations about LGBTQ+ issues because it doesn't specify what would be considered inappropriate in higher grades.

What they're saying: Morales has run the Gay Straight Alliance Club at Felix Varela Senior High School for 14 years and considers her classroom a "safe space."

  • "In my situation, I have kids who have opened up to me for years," Morales tells Axios. "There are teachers that are very concerned because we don't know what to do."

Francisco Sanchez, a history teacher at Miami Coral Park Senior High who is gay, tells Axios he wants to make sure LGBTQ+ students feel safe coming to school and that they have resources if they feel marginalized.

  • "Any kid in my school will know this is a safe classroom, and if you're having issues there are people in this school that will help you out," says Sanchez, who also runs the Gay Straight Alliance Club at his school. "And we will protect you."

Karla Hernández-Mats, president of United Teachers of Dade, believes the law will accelerate Florida's teacher shortage.

  • Hernández-Mats said the union is encouraging teachers to continue making students feel welcome — and to report any specific workplace mandates to their representatives.
  • "We encourage teachers to not change anything about who they are and what they represent, and their families," she said.

Between the lines: LGBTQ+ advocacy group Safe Schools South Florida has hosted webinars ahead of the school year to help Florida teachers navigate potential restrictions.

  • The organization's executive director, Scott Galvin, who is a North Miami City Council member and a gay man, tells Axios that teachers are scared about being sued for unknowingly violating the law.

His group, of which Morales and Sanchez are board members, has instructed teachers to document any interactions or school policies they find concerning and go to their union attorney instead of confronting the school administration.

  • "Chilling effect? Absolutely. Chaos? Absolutely. Fear of what to do next? Absolutely. And nobody knows," he said.
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