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Duval Schools sued over parental rights law

Gavel on a table
Charlie Neibergall

The Duval school district and three others are being sued over a new state law that restricts instruction on gender identity and sexual orientation in classrooms.

Parents, students and a nonprofit organization called CenterLink Inc. filed the lawsuit Monday in federal court in Orlando. The suit seeks to block the school boards in Duval, Orange, Indian River and Palm Beach counties from carrying out the law (HB 1557), which passed during this year’s legislative session after fierce debate.

“Florida enacted HB 1557 to silence and erase lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning young people and families,” the lawsuit said. “The law is profoundly vague and requires schools to ban undefined broad categories of speech, based on undefined standards such as ‘appropriateness.’”

The law, which has drawn nationwide attention, prevents instruction on gender identity and sexual orientation in kindergarten through third grade and requires that such instruction be “age-appropriate … in accordance with state academic standards” in older grades.

Republican lawmakers titled the measure the “Parental Rights in Education” bill. Opponents labeled it the “Don’t Say Gay” bill.

The lawsuit says the law has prompted Duval and the other districts to change the way they handle issues related to sexual orientation and gender identity.

"They have instructed teachers to review hundreds of books that acknowledge LGBTQ+ people and families and have eliminated vital support systems for LGBTQ+ students, including guidance and training that combat bullying and violence," the suit says.

Duval Schools, it said, has blocked referrals to CenterLink, which provides services to support LGBTQ+ youth at centers around the state.

RELATED: Another LGBTQ resource disappears in Duval Schools

Before the parental rights law, the district referred "several" students to CenterLink throughout the year. Since the law took effect, the suit says, the district has blocked at least one student, fearing the referral would run afoul of the law.

The district also canceled standing monthly meetings used to plan teacher training, establish referrals and collect data required under grants, the plaintiffs say.

CenterLink previously interacted with up to 22 advisers to Gay Straight Alliance student groups throughout the district, but only two attended the most recent meeting, and advisers explained that they and colleagues are afraid to communicate about the student groups, the suit says.

The suit also denounces changes to the Duval Schools LGBTQ+ support guide, which has been reduced from 37 pages to eight and stripped of almost all sentences that explicitly protect transgender students’ rights.

"These changes forced by the District’s interpretation of HB 1557 will leave students vulnerable to unequal treatment and harm," the suit says.

RELATED: Here's what Duval Schools is cutting from its LGBTQ+ Support Guide

Duval Schools did not respond Tuesday to the allegations specifically. "The district will always take steps necessary to comply with Florida laws," spokesman Tracy Pierce said in an email. "Any further district response will come within the context of the judicial proceedings."

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit include Jen and Matt Cousins, the parents of four children in Orange County schools; Will Larkins, a rising senior at Orange County’s Winter Park High School who is president of the school’s Queer Student Union; David Dinan and Vik Gongidi, a married same-sex couple who have two children in Indian River County schools; and CenterLink.

In part, the plaintiffs’ attorneys targeted what they allege is vagueness in the law. For instance, they said state standards have not been developed for what would be considered age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate instruction.

“HB 1557’s vagueness inevitably has led to, and continues to lead to, discriminatory and arbitrary application and enforcement across various school districts,” said the lawsuit filed by attorneys from Lambda Legal, the Southern Poverty Law Center, Southern Legal Counsel and the firm Baker McKenzie.

In addition, the complaint said school districts can face costly lawsuits if parents think the law has been violated.

“This vigilante enforcement mechanism, combined with the law’s intentionally vague and sweeping scope, invites parents who oppose any acknowledgement whatsoever of the existence of LGBTQ+ people to sue, resulting in schools acting aggressively to silence students, parents and school personnel,” the lawsuit said. “The law, by design, chills speech and expression that have any connection, however remote, to sexual orientation or gender identity.”

Opponents also have challenged the constitutionality of the measure in a federal lawsuit filed in Tallahassee against Gov. Ron DeSantis, the State Board of Education, the Florida Department of Education, Education Commissioner Manny Diaz Jr. and several school boards. That case is pending.

Attorney General Ashley Moody’s office last month asked U.S. District Judge Allen Winsor to dismiss the Tallahassee case. The motion, in part, argued that the state has the right to set curriculums for public schools.

“Falsely dubbed by its opponents the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, HB 1557 is nothing of the sort,” the state’s motion said. “Far from banning discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity, the legislation expressly allows age- and developmentally appropriate education on those subjects. Consistent with that modest limitation, the law prohibits classroom instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity for the youngest children, neutrally allowing all parents, no matter their views, to introduce those sensitive topics to their children as they see fit.”

The motion also disputed that the “Legislature acted out of animus against LGBTQ individuals.”

“The bill reflects no governmental preference about what students should learn about sexual orientation and gender identity,” the state’s lawyers wrote. “Those subjects must be taught appropriately and, for the youngest children, they may be taught by parents, not in public-school classroom settings. That is a legitimate (state) interest.”

Jim Saunders is the Executive Editor of The News Service Of Florida.
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.