TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — Building upon a framework created with 2021’s Parents’ Bill of Rights, Florida lawmakers have proposed a new piece of legislation that would ban discussion of sexual orientation or gender identity in classrooms for kindergarten through seventh grade.

Based on the Parents’ Bill of Rights’ protections for the “fundamental rights of parents to direct the upbringing, education and care of their minor children,” the newly proposed legislation, House Bill 1557 and companion Senate Bill 1834, would require schools to “adopt procedures for notifying” parents if there is a change in their students’ welfare.

Rep. Joe Harding (R-Williston) proposed the bill in the House. The Senate version, sponsored by Sen. Dennis Baxley (R-Ocala) is textually identical.

Questions of curriculum dominated the discussion of HB 1557, particularly over the line about the discussion of the LGBTQ+ community in the classroom.

According to his introduction of the bill during the House committee hearing, Harding said the bill was focused on giving parents more protections to decide how they raise their children.

“A school district may not encourage classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity in primary grade levels or in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students,” the bill says.

Facing questions from other members of the committee, Harding said teachers, school administrators, councilors were recognized as those who could decide what qualified as age or developmentally appropriate.

Harding also said children ages “six, seven, eight to 11-years-old” were what he viewed as qualifying for the primary grade levels the bill, if passed, would bar from discussion of sexual orientation or gender identity. Upon further questions during the hearing, Harding clarified that he would consider primary grades as K-5.

Upon questions by 8 On Your Side, the Florida Dept. of Education said it considers grades K-12 as primary grade levels. However, representatives at the committee hearing said clarification of what constitutes primary schools are not defined in the Florida Statutes, and requested an amendment to the bill to clarify the age range Harding intended.

Rep. Ana Eskamani (D-Orange) asked Harding if children of LGBTQ families would be prevented from those students from discussing their families under the proposed language of the bill. Harding said that type of discussion would not be prohibited, saying “If we are clarifying every conversation a teacher can have with a student, that would be a considerable undertaking.”

Harding said the bill was intended to codify procedural policies for schools.

“Conversations are going to happen,” Harding said. “I’ve got four children, over 60 nieces and nephews. Conversations, children and students ask a lot of questions. Life and discussions relating to life, any discussion from a broad discussion of whether it’s your parents and how they identify, or another student in the classroom, or whatever they may be, they’re going to happen. Those are conversations. We’re talking about specific procedures that the school has.”

Continuing with questions, Eskamani asked Harding about current events and recent history, highlighting the shooting at Pulse Night Club in Orange County as an example of what may or may not be allowed for discussion in schools, based on age.

“No, it doesn’t eliminate those conversations,” Harding said. “In fact, a tragedy like Pulse, where you have innocent people die is a horrific thing that in many cases is talked about and should be continued to be honored and talked about. So, relating to eliminating a conversation like that, no, I don’t believe that this includes that.”

Harding also said LGBTQ+ officials would not have to omit their orientation when visiting schools and discussing what got them interested in entering public office. Regarding the formation of a Gay-Straight Alliance, Harding said he would look into how the bill could affect that and get an answer for the question of how these organizations are formed at schools.

Harding clarified that as far as discussions regarding LGBTQ+ topics, the bill would specifically be in “situations where a teacher is encouraging or initiating conversations through a procedure the school is doing.” He said the bill would not bar discussions in a blanket method, but did say the parents of students should be made aware or “alerted” about the discussions.

“Get the parents involved, when you make a change to how the student is treated,” Harding said.

The bill defines those changes as occurring in “the student’s services or monitoring related to the student’s mental, emotional, or physical health or well-being and the school’s ability to provide a safe and supportive learning environment for the student.”

While ensuring a supportive and safe environment, the bill says the procedures must also reinforce the “fundamental right of parents to make decisions regarding the upbringing and control of their children by requiring school district personnel to encourage a student to discuss issues relating to his or her well-being with his or her parent or to seek permission to discuss or facilitate discussion of the issue with the parent.”

To that point, Harding said the law would prevent school districts from creating curriculum or policies that encourage teachers to discuss LGBTQ+ topics in classrooms.

Additionally, Harding said the bill would not preclude the teaching of LGBTQ+ history in K-12 classrooms. Regarding what the bill means by “encouraging” LGBTQ+ discussions, Harding said the bill would prevent schools from initiating those conversations through items like questionnaires or events, but rather that the bill focuses on “specific curriculum or coursework that puts” a student “in a situation where they have to have” a discussion about LGBTQ+ topics.

Responding to concerns about LGBTQ+ suicide rates, the bill does have a provision that would require school personnel to withhold information about a student in cases where “a reasonably prudent person would believe that such disclosure” would end in situations of abuse, abandonment or neglect of LGBTQ+ students.

While much discussion focused on how the bill would affect education and policy regarding LGBTQ+ discussions in classrooms, Harding assured his fellow committee members that school districts would not be required to “out their students,” as Eskamani put it, in cases where a teacher overhears discussions overheard between students.

Turning to questions on how the bill is worded, Harding said the bill focuses on government employees specifically, being teachers and other school personnel. It does not have any language in the bill that prevents or discourages parents from having these discussions at home with their children, rather than it being a school priority. Harding called the student protections a safety valve to get parents involved, rather than putting the impetus on schools to step in.

“What we don’t want is the school district to try take on the role of being the parent, because they’re not, that’s the role of the parent,” Harding said. “I would argue that on the opposite, this encourages the parent to be the one having this conversation, not the government.”

Should the policies over student physical, mental and emotional health and their files and privacy be violated, the bill sets up a method for parents to sue teachers or school officials over the violations, and entitles the parents to potential monetary damages.

As far as litigation, Harding said the bill would allow parents to receive monetary compensations for court and attorneys fees, should they successfully sue. Harding said damages would be levied based on how the child is affected, through lawsuits brought by parents against teachers or school officials. He said it was “the duty of the school” to get parents involved, not doing so would count as a violation of this bill’s proposed policy, covering issues from eating disorders to bullying, not just a focus on LGBTQ+ topics.

Explicitly, concerning topics covered, Harding’s bill only mentions LGBTQ+ topics, it does not include language focused on eating disorders, bullying, suicidal ideation, or any other commented topics related to students’ physical, mental or emotional health.

During the public comment portion of the bill’s committee hearing, representatives from Equality Florida, an LGBTQ+ advocate organization, started off by voicing opposition to the bill.

“We strongly opposed House Bill 1557, as written,” John Harris Mauer, Equality Florida’s Public Policy Director, said. He said the organization took issue with three main items: the banning of school or government employees from discussing gender identity or sexual orientation, the establishment of a new basis for lawsuits against school districts due to a potential chilling effect on LGBTQ+ youth support, and requiring the school districts to go to the state’s Department of Education for training.

Mauer said Equality Florida promotes and supports parent involvement, but said it was a concern that school board meetings have become political battlegrounds in recent months.

“We’ve seen how Florida school board district meetings have recently become political battlegrounds,” Mauer said. “With students being called slurs like pedophile in meetings where they’re trying to encourage adopting suicide and bullying prevention measures. That’s why we’re concerned about the bill’s vague requirements for parental involvement and inclusion, along with a new cause of action.”

He said it would create a new litigation avenue against school districts that would discourage the adoption of supportive policies for students. Mauer said it would encourage parents who were not supportive of LGBTQ+ resources to sue.

“Just last month, the Dept. of Education removed its anti-bullying and prevention resources from its websites, because there were questions about its inclusion of LGBTQ protections,” Mauer said. “They did restore the anti-bullying resources, only after stripping the LGBTQ references.” He said the ban on discussing sexual orientation and gender identity’s curriculum effects was difficult due to the lack of clarity, which was covered during the question and answer session between lawmakers.

Mauer said LGBTQ+ members of the community were normal, healthy parts of society, by using the word “encouraging” was limited, and the bill lacked clarity on what it actually sought to do.

“We are parents, students and teachers. We are your brothers and your sisters. Conversations about us aren’t something dangerous that should be banned, that’s deeply prejudicial and it sends a terrible message to our young people, including LGBTQ young people or young people who have LGBTQ parents,” Mauer said. “There are a lot of issues that ought to be approached with care, and how we respectfully talk about them with our children. Issues like religion, politics, weighty issues like death, the meaning of life, but this bill doesn’t speak to any of those, it’s only talking about sexual orientation and gender identity. It’s stigmatizing because of that.”

Going further, Mauer said there were already laws in place that regulate topics by age appropriateness, such as sexual activity and health.

“Sexual orientation and gender identity are about who we love and who we are. If you’re worried about teaching students about sexual activities, then regulate that, but don’t use this as a front to ban discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity,” Mauer said. “We already have statutes on age-appropriate sexual education, so this bill adds nothing to that. It’s about finding a place to erase our existence and not talk about us.”

Some representatives questioned the focus by the bill’s opponents as dangerous for LGBTQ+ individuals and students. Rep. Dana Trabulsy (R-Fort Pierce) asked Mauer why he believed the bill was targeting those groups in particular. He reiterated to Trabulsy that sexual orientation and gender identity were the only explicitly named topics to face prohibition of discussion in the bill.

Rep. Andy Fine (R-Brevard) questioned Mauer on why he wanted to fight to keep the government as the one to have the conversations about sexual orientation and gender identity, rather than a student’s parents. Fine said that since nothing in the bill prevented parents from having those discussions, and asked why the bill was dangerous by telling the government to “stay out of it, keep this between a child and their parents.”

Mauer said the purpose of the school system is to educate youth. He said people should be able to discuss race, religion, national origin, as well as sexual orientation and gender identity. Mauer said all topics, all sorts of people, should be acceptable for discussion, and that singling out LGBTQ+ as a topic shouldn’t be something banned from education and curriculum.

Some of the public commentary included support for the bill. January Littlejohn, a licensed mental health counselor and parent in Florida, spoke in favor of Harding’s legislation. She said her daughter had a meeting with school officials regarding which restroom her daughter would prefer to use, and upon requesting information about that meeting, she as her parent was prevented from accessing that information by the vice principal and guidance counselor.

She said her daughter is 13-years-old and that the school had created a transgender, gender-nonconforming support plan with her daughter without parental knowledge or consent, and behind closed doors, with officials, Littlejohn had never met. Littlejohn said the planning meeting included questions and topics that in her opinion put her daughter’s safety at risk.

Littlejohn said she did not learn the topic of the meeting until several weeks later, after repeated requests for information about the meeting.

“When parents are excluded from decisions affecting their child’s health and wellbeing at school, it sends a message to children that their parents’ input and authority are no longer important,” Littlejohn said. “This created a huge wedge between our daughter and us because it sent the message that she needed to be protected from us, not by us.”

Littlejohn also said discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity in schools could create mental health issues in children, and that schools are unequipped to have those discussions. She said it’s a violation of parental rights, and was not unique to her family, and that multiple families across the state had experienced a similar problem.

“Parental involvement in a child’s education is considered by many education experts to be the most important factor in student success,” Littlejohn said. She thanked Rep. Harding for his proposed legislation.

After further public comment from supporters and opponents of the proposed bill, Committee Chair Chris Latvala (R-Clearwater) put the bill to a vote among the committee members.

As of Jan. 20, the bill passed its first committee test in the House of Representatives, and was voted upon “favorably” in the Education and Employment Committee. You can watch the whole committee meeting here.