COLLIER COUNTY, Fla. — School starts in less than a week for Collier County, and Florida teachers are heading back to the classroom with new laws in effect. Many are controversial and signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis within the past year.
One of the biggest changes is the Parental Rights in Education law. House Bill 1557 was deemed the "Don't Say Gay" bill by Democratic opponents and LGBTQ+ advocates, who say the language in the bill is hateful and discriminatory.
"We have always followed the law whatever those laws are," said Collier County Public Schools superintendent Dr. Kamela Patton. "Parents will have a lot of choices this year."
Part of the law doesn't allow kindergarten to third grade teachers to teach sexual orientation or gender identity. After third grade, the conversation needs to be "age-appropriate," according to the Florida Department of Education.
We asked Patton how the district plans to enforce it.
"What we are trying to do is ensure that we provide safeguards for our teachers. We’ve already met with our principals," she said. "They will meet with our teachers when they’re back next week to ensure that they understand because that’s usually the key to understanding."
Opponents of the law believe its true intent is to marginalize LGBTQ people and their families. Patton has her own opinion about the law.
"Parents Right bill is a good thing. Our parents are just that, they are parents, so letting them have choices about what they want to do with their kids in any way," she said.
Patton says the district will not go down the punishment path right away if the law is violated in the classroom. She wants to take an education approach first.
A student can still bring up the topic, but it needs to be handled a certain way by educators.
"We want to ensure that those students feel safe to tell us, but then we also need to take that extra step and ensure that parents know," Patton explained.
Another topic we asked Patton about: mental health. House Bill 1421 requires 80-percent of staff to have mental health awareness training by July 2023. According to the district's website, close to 50-percent of employees across the district received training already.
"I think whether the state law had required everyone — that was the road that we already went down because everyone should have access to that great youth mental health training," Patton explained.
She says middle and high school students will also stop once a week for 35 minutes for social and emotional learning. It's something the district has already been doing.
There are some gray areas though with the new policies and curriculum. They curriculum is laid out by the Teaching and Learning department at CCPS. We asked for a copy of the curriculum, but a spokesperson says it is proprietary and is not a public record. However, CCPS provided us with a sample curriculum.
Guidance from the state is also lacking when it comes to certain laws.
"One of the requirements really makes us start July 1st, but we’re not going to get that training until November 1 so we’re doing the best we can to navigate without the state’s input," Patton said. "But the state is keenly aware of what are the biggest ones, can we speed that process along."
Patton is talking about House Bill 1467, which involves media center employees. Beginning January 1, 2023, they must complete an online training program developed by the Florida Department of Education (FDOE) prior to reviewing and selecting age-appropriate materials and library resources.
"We’re waiting to see what the media center person at the schools will now have the responsibility to certify all the books that we order," Patton said.
With no guidance from the state, Patton says everything is on hold for the library. They will not order any new books and she says they want to "keep your media specialist safe."
We reached out to the Department of Education for guidance for all the new laws going into effect and as of Thursday afternoon, our request has not been fulfilled.
Under the new laws, Gov. DeSantis has banned the teachings of critical race theory. However, CCPS says it has never taught it.
We asked Board Chair Jen Mitchell for a copy of all the new policies going into effect. She says the Board will have a meeting in September to put pen to paper — finalizing all the new guidance the district needs to follow by law.