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Divided crowd presses Duval School Board over LGBTQ policy

Nearly 300 people signed up to tell the Duval School Board how the district should respond to Florida's new "Don’t Say Gay" law.
Claire Heddles
Nearly 300 people signed up to tell the Duval School Board how the district should respond to Florida's new "Don’t Say Gay" law.

Nearly 300 people lined up to speak Tuesday night in a clash over LGBTQ procedures in the Duval County Schools. But the School Board ended the discussion hours later with no action.

The crowd was almost evenly split over a resolution by board member Charlotte Joyce, who wants to modify the district's current LGBTQ Support Guide and also express support for the state's newly passed Parental Rights in Education law, which critics have branded the "Don't Say Gay" law.

All other School Board members voted to table her resolution with no discussion. School Board Chair Darryl Willie said the district already plans to follow the law, making the resolution unnecessary.

Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the law in March, restricting discussion of gender identification and sexual orientation in schools.

The law prohibits classroom instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity in kindergarten through third grade and prohibits instruction that is not age appropriate for all students, which the district says it already complies with.

The law also requires school districts to adopt procedures for notifying parents if there is a change in services from the school regarding a child’s mental, emotional or physical health or well-being. This could require teachers to alert parents if kids go by different names or pronouns, which goes against Duval’s current policy. 

Critics see the law as an intrusion on free speech and an attack on LGBTQ students by taking away their right to choose when to come out to their families. Supporters say the law ensures that parents will play a central role in their children's education. Speakers on Tuesday reflected that debate.

Some speakers told intensely personal stories about their LGBTQ experiences. "I would have been personally devastated if the opportunity to come out to my family had been robbed from me," one Stanton College Prep graduate said.

A mother of two Duval students declared, "The resolution is useless and has been a colossal waste of the board's time tonight."

Other speakers supported the resolution, however. "You don't know what's best for my child. Leave my child alone. Let the parents decide," one mom said.

Among the portions of the LGBTQ+ support guide Joyce wanted to revoke in her resolution is this statement: "It is never appropriate to divulge the sexual orientation of a student to a parent."

The proposed changes also took aim at a portion of the guide that explains that children should decide on "their bathroom of choice, shower and other accommodations such as overnight excursions," according to Joyce's resolution.

The support guide previously had been available on the district's website, but it was removed last year. Asked why, a spokesperson said the district's legal staff is analyzing how the guide may conflict with the new state law. The district has not explained why the guide was removed long before the law was signed.

A district attorney told the School Board on Tuesday that a revised version of the support guide is almost ready for review during a school board workshop. According to district representative Tracy Pierce, the revised version of the guide won't go before a full board vote.

"The guide itself is not School Board policy," Pierce said. "It’s an internal training and school resource document and doesn’t require formal approval."

School Board Chair Willie said Tuesday's 6-to-1 vote to table the resolution doesn’t mean the district won’t follow the new state law.

"We already have the guide in place right now. It's gone to [the Office of General Counsel]. It's looked at by legal," Willie said. "They've already been doing the due diligence to take care of this, and this [resolution] basically circumvents that."

Other school boards, like Palm Beach and Broward, have issued statements opposing the law, which goes into effect July 1. No School Board member in Duval has indicated plans to oppose the law.

See the most recent version of the district's LGBTQ+ support guide, currently removed from the district's website and undergoing legal review, below.

Claire joined WJCT as a reporter in August 2021. She was previously the local host of NPR's Morning Edition at WUOT in Knoxville, Tennessee. During her time in East Tennessee, her coverage of the COVID pandemic earned a Public Media Journalists’ Association award for investigative reporting. You can reach Claire at (904) 250-0926 or on Twitter @ClaireHeddles.