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Florida Schools Try to Adapt to New Rules on Gender, Bathrooms and Pronouns


As a new school year begins in Florida this week, parents are filling out a flurry of new forms — specifying a student’s nickname or new name; allowing a child to check certain books out of the library; and opting in or out of health services ranging from counseling to temperature checks, calamine lotion and ice packs.

The new bureaucracy is an offshoot of Gov. Ron DeSantis’s increasingly muscular push for “parental rights” in education, with new laws and regulations that broadly restrict classroom instruction on gender and sexuality, including in high school, and prevent transgender students and staff members from using group bathrooms that match their gender identity.

Teachers will also be barred from asking students for their preferred pronouns and could lose their professional certification for violating the new laws. Course lists and classroom libraries are also under the microscope, with districts seeking to excise material that touches on gender and sexuality, including in classics like “Romeo and Juliet.”

Here is how some Florida school districts are interpreting the new laws.

The new regulations have created a bureaucratic tangle, with several counties sending parents forms that must be filled out if they want their child referred to by something other than their legal name.

In Orange County, in and around Orlando, the district told parents that they must fill out the form even if “Robert” wishes to be called “Rob” — or if a trans child now goes by “Roberta.”

But school staff members “may elect” not to use she/her pronouns when referring to Roberta, according to the school district’s attorney, John C. Palmerini. In a memo to district staff, he cited House Bill 1069, a law signed by Governor DeSantis in May, which defines “sex” as corresponding to “external genitalia present at birth,” and also broadly restricts instruction on gender and sexuality.

Mr. Palmerini acknowledged in the memo that there was confusion about whether staff members could use a transgender student’s preferred pronouns after a request by that student’s parent. “The State Board of Education has not given guidance on this precise question,” he wrote, but he urged caution — suggesting teachers concerned about liability avoid the issue by referring to students by their last names.

But Carlos Guillermo Smith, a senior policy adviser for Equality Florida, an L.G.B.T.Q. rights group, said, “The districts are being put in a terrible position.” The sweeping restrictions, he said, are “the inevitable result of vague and bigoted legislation.”

In Palm Beach County, Michael Woods, a special-education teacher, said he was told in a faculty training session on Wednesday that when referring to transgender colleagues, he should use the title “teacher” instead of their preferred honorific such as Mr. or Ms., if that honorific does not match their sex assigned at birth.

He was also told that he should not refer to transgender students by their preferred names unless he was certain a parent had returned a permission slip. He knew of one specific transgender student, he said, whose parents would be unlikely to do so because of religious objections.

“It stifles conversation,” Mr. Woods said of the new law. “It stifles the relationship you built with that young person.”

Palm Beach County schools did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The new state regulations around bathroom use in schools are clearer. Students, staff members and visitors will be required to use either the bathroom corresponding to the sex they were assigned at birth, or use a single-stall restroom. Districts that violate this law can be fined up to $10,000.

Mr. Woods said the rule could essentially out transgender students or staff members against their will, since they might be observed visiting only the single-stall bathroom, or asking where it is.

In Lee County, on the Gulf Coast, parents will receive a new “media access form.”

They can allow their children unrestricted access to library books; prevent any access; or allow their children access to books except those that have been challenged and reviewed for objectionable material — even if the review found the book was not objectionable.

Under Florida law, members of the public can challenge any school library book, a process that has often been used to object to works that center on the L.G.B.T.Q. experience, or on concepts such a structural racism.

The Lee County school district did not respond to a request for comment. But Christy DeVigili of the Florida Citizens Alliance, a conservative group that supports the new education regulations, said she welcomed the new permission forms, even if left-leaning activists could use the same process to dispute books she might approve of.

“That is the beauty of democracy,” she said. “There is nothing stopping any parent from any side of the coin from challenging any book in any library.”

The overall goal, she said, was to give parents “the ultimate decision-making authority, which is really what the law is designed for.”

A separate regulation now requires that a state-certified media specialist reviews individual classroom libraries to ensure that no book contains banned content, such as depictions of “sexual conduct.”

That has led to some confusion. Hillsborough County, in Tampa, initially told educators that meant they could assign excerpts from “Romeo and Juliet” but not the full play, which implies that the teen lovers consummate their romance.

But that guidance, while potentially in line with the law, seemed to buck state policymakers’ intentions. On Tuesday, the state education commissioner, Manny Diaz, Jr., named “Romeo and Juliet” a “book of the month” for August, alongside “Up From Slavery” by Booker T. Washington.

On Wednesday, Hillsborough interim superintendent Van Ayres sent a letter to the community acknowledging that the Shakespeare guidance had “unfortunately created some confusion.”

“To be clear, we are teaching Shakespeare in a variety of ways in high schools, everything from short excerpts to full novel readings,” he wrote.

The broad restrictions on instruction about gender and sexuality have threatened a number of courses, including Advanced Placement Psychology. The College Board, which runs the A.P. program, advised Florida districts not to offer the class, saying the banned material was central to the discipline and Florida students who took the class might not qualify for college credit.

On Aug. 4, Mr. Diaz told superintendents that he believed the class could still be taught “in its entirety,” and the College Board walked back its previous statements.

But given the conflicting guidance, districts are scrambling to figure out whether they should stick with the popular class or seek out alternatives.

The Florida Department of Education did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

There is also the matter of sex education. Previously, local districts had some discretion on how it was taught, though the state required an emphasis on abstinence. Now, the state is asserting the power to approve of all curriculum materials, and requiring that students be taught that the male and female reproductive roles are “binary, stable and unchangeable.”

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