Palm Beach County School Board member calls passage of education bill 'disheartening'

'Parental Rights In Education' bill bans instruction of sexual orientation and gender identity for certain Florida students
Posted at 2:46 PM, Mar 08, 2022
and last updated 2022-03-08 18:26:53-05

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — A Palm Beach County School Board member said she's disheartened after the Florida Senate passed a controversial bill Tuesday banning the instruction of sexual orientation and gender identity for certain students in Florida schools.

The "Parental Rights In Education" measure — more commonly known as the "Don't Stay Gay" bill — will now to head to Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has repeatedly said he supports the plan.


"It is 100% disheartening," said Palm Beach County School Board Member Erica Whitfield, who represents District 4. "It is not something that I supported going forward."

Under the contentious bill, "classroom instruction by school personnel or third parties on sexual orientation or gender identity may not occur in kindergarten through grade 3 or in a manner that is not age appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards."


Whitfield said that while sexual orientation and gender identity are not taught in kindergarten through third grade within the School District of Palm Beach County, the bigger concern is the message the bill sends about acceptance and inclusion in local schools.

"The impact of the actual day-to-day for our students and teachers is just to create restrictions where I don't think there needed to be any," Whitfield said. "To tell people to do things that they weren't doing in the beginning. But it does send a message to families about whether or not they are feeling accepted by our community."

Last month, the Palm Beach County School Board voted to send a letter to Florida lawmakers, officially denouncing the bill and calling it "worrisome."

In the letter, Superintendent Mike Burke and all seven school board members said they "stand firmly against any legislation that would compromise acceptance and respect for our students based on race, religion, ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, or any other demographic targeted for discriminatory exclusion."

Whitfield said the "Parental Rights In Education" bill injects too much politics into local education.

"It's just not the direction that I think we want to have education go in," Whitfield said. "Trying to add politics to education is never what I want to do, and I wish that this wouldn't be the case. It's very unfortunate to say the least."

Supporters of the bill, however, argued the legislation gives parents more control over what their children learn in school, and also allows students to focus more on subjects like reading and math, and not gender identity.

"I want you to be empowered. I want you to be empowered to say, look, you're the parents. You have to take charge. You are in charge of the destiny of these kids," said Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Lady Lake, who sponsored the bill.

With the passage of the controversial plan, Whitfield said the School District of Palm Beach County must ensure that families and children feel safe, secure, and accepted in school.

"If you don't feel like you have parental rights in your school, then something is wrong, because that has always been our goal," Whitfield said. "We are trying to make sure every parent feels welcome and accepted and has the ability to make decisions for their child."

"We have caused what I feel will be a chilling effect in our classrooms for vulnerable individuals," said Michael Woods, a teacher at Santaluces Community High School. "Every student deserves to feel safe, to feel protected, to feel wanted, and it doesn't start at third and fourth grade and above."

Woods said the new legislation has left him and others feeling confused about what they are allowed to say in class and why it was necessary.

"It was a solution in search of a problem because we follow Sunshine State standards," Woods said.

Parent Angelique Contreras, who is running for school board and supports the measure, said that for her, it comes down to exactly what the bill is called, "Parental Rights In Education."

"I believe that this bill reinforces the fundamental rights of parents to make decisions regarding the upbringing of their children," Contreras said.

When it comes to that, Woods said he always welcomes parents to be involved in the classroom.

"Don't as a lawmaker put it under the guise of parental rights when you want to have a substantive discussion of LGBTQ people and how we exist and how kids are gonna need to feel supported no matter what," Woods said.

And he plans to continue that moving forward.

"I have been a supporter of young people and their biggest advocate for almost three decades, and this bill is not going to stop that," Woods said.

There are several other provisions in the bill that have gone under the radar, including keeping parents informed about any changes to their child's services related to mental, emotional, or physical health, and notifying parents about health care services offered at the school.

Once the "Parental Rights In Education" bill is signed into law by DeSantis, the curriculum changes will go into effect on July 1.

WPTV has contacted school districts in Martin, St. Lucie, Indian River, and Okeechobee counties for their reaction to the passage of the measure, but has not heard back yet.