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St. Johns teachers fear they must 'out' LGBTQ students to parents

St. Johns County School District headquarters in downtown St. Augustine.
St. Johns County School District headquarters in downtown St. Augustine.

Some teachers in St. Johns County Public Schools are alarmed about a recent policy change that could force them to reveal LGBTQ students to their parents.

Under new guidelines, teachers are asked to report a student’s change in name or pronouns to the administration, which will inform the child’s guardians.

A memo reads:

“Schools will use the name and gender pronoun corresponding to his/her consistently asserted gender identity upon request of the student with knowledge of the parent.”

A St. Johns teacher spoke with WJCT News on Wednesday under the condition of anonymity, stating his concern for his students’ safety. He said some students are not comfortable coming out to their parents because they fear mistreatment, abuse or conversion therapy, the practice of trying to "cure" a person's sexual orientation or gender identity.

“If the school district is going to require us to effectively out them to their family, then we worry for their safety," the educator said. "I haven’t talked to a teacher who is going to be willing to out a student behind their back.”

The issue arises during a time of growing discord over gender identity in schools. Several lawsuits are pending that challenge the way schools have handled discussions with students about sexual orientation and gender identity.

In addition, the Florida Legislature is considering a controversial bill intended to stop schools from discussing those topics with students in "primary grade levels." Opponents have dubbed the legislation the "Don't Say Gay" bill. The Senate Education Committee approved the measure Tuesday.

Asked about the policy change in St. Johns County, Christian Upchurch, the district’s chief of community relations, said, “That change was made to be in alignment with the Parents Bill of Rights, Florida Statute 1014.04.”

Upchurch was referring to Gov. Ron DeSantis’ proposal passed into law last summer that enumerates the rights of parents and legal guardians to “direct the upbringing, education, health care, and mental health” of their child. The bill does not require the policy change that St. Johns County Schools adopted, but the district acted based on its interpretation of the legislation.

The school district also faces legal actions related to the rights of LGBTQ students.

Last summer, Florida became the latest state to ban transgender girls from participating in women’s sports at school. That bill is now on hold until a resolution is reached in the yearslong legal battle over St. Johns Schools barring a transgender male student from using the boys’ bathrooms on campus. That lawsuit reached the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which is scheduled to hear arguments Feb. 22.

Other counties across the state face lawsuits from parents who believe the schools violated their parental rights by discussing gender and sexuality with their children without their knowledge.

In late 2021, the Child and Parental Rights Campaign sued Leon County Schools, alleging that the district's policies exclude guardians from conversations about their children’s gender and sexual identity. The couple named in the lawsuit alleges that their child’s gender identity was addressed at school without their consent. Leon County School officials say the parent gave permission to let the child drive the discussion.

The Clay County School District faces a similar lawsuit from parents of an elementary school student who claim that a guidance counselor violated their rights by discussing their child’s gender identity. The child attempted suicide twice.

The child’s father, speaking with WJCT News partner News4JAX, said his child has not shown signs of “gender confusion.” He alleges that he was excluded from the conversation because of his Catholic beliefs.

The school district denies the lawsuit's allegations.

Katherine Hobbs was Associate Producer of talk shows at WJCT until 2022.