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How Florida teachers plan to deal with 'Don't Say Gay' rules

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Florida teachers are trying to figure out how the Parental Rights and Education Act, which opponents call the don't say gay bill, will affect their classrooms. Governor Ron DeSantis signed it into law yesterday.

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DON DESANTIS: We will make sure that parents can send their kids to school to get an education, not an indoctrination.

CHANG: The law bans instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity from kindergarten through third grade. NPR's Melissa Block reports.

MELISSA BLOCK, BYLINE: Here's the question Paula Stephens hears most from her first graders in Clearwater, Fla. - spoiler alert, it's not about sexual orientation or gender identity. It's...

PAULA STEPHENS: Is it snack time?

BLOCK: Stephens is puzzled by the law. After all, she says, teaching about sexual orientation and gender identity isn't in the first grade curriculum. But in class, they do talk a lot about kids' families, some with two moms or two dads.

STEPHENS: It makes me wonder, when I talk about families in my classroom, am I going to be violating this law because the children were having discussions about what their family looks like?

BLOCK: The law's sponsors say that's not the intent. But Stephens fears the language is so vague, it will have a chilling effect. And she worries about what other topics might become a target.

STEPHENS: What's next? If they're going after this conversation now, where does this stop?

BLOCK: Beyond K through third grade, the Florida law also says any instruction about sexual orientation or gender identity in any grade has to be, quote, "age-appropriate." Opponents say the law will effectively muzzle any discussion out of fear. Under the law, parents can sue if they believe the school is in violation.

JORJE BOTELLO: Honestly, I feel like it's just a blatant attack on education.

BLOCK: That's Jorje Botello. He teaches eighth grade American history at Osceola Middle School in rural Okeechobee, Fla., so that age appropriate language would apply to his classes. And he gives this example. Will he still feel comfortable telling students that the Revolutionary War hero, the Prussian General von Steuben, is widely believed to have been openly gay?

BOTELLO: When you look back in history, there's clear examples of how these different groups that are being attacked today actually helped form our country. You know, they're a part of our story.

BLOCK: Botello believes lessons like that can empower LGBTQ students, weaving them into America's history. And as a Mexican American, he knows how important representation is. Growing up, he didn't see himself in the history books.

BOTELLO: I know that I have to think a little harder when I navigate that next year, now that this bill is going to be in effect.

BLOCK: The new law feels like a hateful personal attack to Clinton McCracken, who has taught art for 21 years at Howard Middle School Academy of Arts in Orlando. As a gay man, he says, it tells him and his LGBTQ students that there's something inappropriate about them, that their identity is taboo or somehow dirty.

CLINTON MCCRACKEN: The Trevor Project found last year that 42% of LGBTQ students have considered attempting suicide. And I can tell you, as someone who grew up as a gay boy, how real that statistic is and how dangerous it is that these Republican legislators are playing with the safety of our vulnerable youth.

BLOCK: McCracken is appalled when he hears DeSantis claim that schools are, in the governor's words, sexualizing kids and, quote, "injecting transgenderism into the classroom."

MCCRACKEN: This is a created culture war from him so that he can achieve his political ambitions. That's all this is. So I'm not teaching kids how to be gay in my classroom. But I'll tell you what I am doing. I am trying with all my power to teach kids to be OK with who they are.

BLOCK: McCracken says the teachers he's talked with say they won't be silenced. They'll keep on teaching just as they have been. If that means parents sue their school districts, he says, then so be it. It's still the right thing to do. Melissa Block, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.