Borrowing a page from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and other Republican-led initiatives across the country, the Lee County Board of Education has added a “Parents/Guardians’ Bill of Rights” to its policy code. Policy Code 1305 states that Lee County Schools “recognizes and respects parental/guardian involvement in their children’s education” and defers to the parent or guardian “to make the best social and moral decisions with respect to their children.”
But some of the language in the new policy has drawn the ire of students at Lee County and Southern Lee high schools — several requested a meeting with Superintendent Andy Bryan to discuss their concerns with language that suggests teachers will be responsible for informing parents if their student is considering a change in their gender identity or pronoun usage without their parents’ knowledge.
Section 1B of the code states: “Schools shall defer to the parent/guardian to make the best social and moral decisions with respect to their children. Parent/guardians are in the best position to work with their children and, where appropriate, their children’s health care providers to determine: a) what names, nicknames and/or pronouns if any, shall be used for their child by teachers and school staff while their child is at school, b) whether their child engages in any counseling or social transition at school that encourages a gender that differs from their child’s sex or c) whether their child expresses a gender that differs from their child’s sex while at school.”
Section 1C then adds: “Schools shall keep parents informed of their children’s well-being. To ensure parents/guardians are able to make the best decisions with respect to their child, school personnel shall keep parent/guardians fully informed about all matters that may be reasonably expected to be important to a parent/guardian, including, and without limitation, matters related to their child’s health, and social and psychological development.”
One student — who asked not to be identified — told The Rant they were concerned the policy would also affect students who suggest becoming LGBTQ or become involved in a same-sex relationship without their parents’ knowledge.
The new policies and changes to existing policies have been led by new Republican board member Chris Gaster, who was named chairman of the Policy Committee after his election. Gaster went public in early January — weeks after being sworn in to his position — condemning a SanLee Middle School theater production of the play, “Almost, Maine,” which contains a scene with two same-sex actors who suggest an attraction to each other.
SanLee scrapped the play after Gaster made his concerns public, despite revealing that their version of the play was a middle school-appropriate version that didn’t contain the scene in question (or used opposite-sex actors in the scene).
The policy was the topic of discussion at the Board of Education’s February and March meetings. In February, Democratic board member Jaime Laudate asked if the “Bill of Rights” was necessary since a bill with similar language was “skyrocketing” through the state legislature.
“This seems redundant to me,” Laudate said in the meeting. “Passing it here locally sends the wrong message to our teachers. Not that I don’t agree with parents’ rights — I have kids in the school system. But I’ve never been denied what’s in this policy. Not a single time.”
“I’m just curious,” added Democrat Patrick Kelly, “Is this a movement from the outside? Is this about the national stage? Or is it local? I don’t think it’s needed in our school system.”
Republican Board Chairman Sherry Lynn Womack responded passionately, saying, “We’re here to lead our community and our students. If we table our policy to accommodate the passage [of the state bills], we may have to wait well over a school year. … The community realizes we’re not waiting on a law, because we’re here to serve them, our community and our children.”
The first reading of the new policy passed with a 4-3 vote, with former Republican Sandra Bowen the third objector. She expressed concerns over situations where parents have different views of “matters related to their child’s health, and social and psychological development.”
“What if you have two parents at odds? Both have equal rights,” she said. “We then have to decide who to give those rights to? Then they have the right to sue, so we’re on the hook for a lawsuit with no force of law behind us. That’s why waiting for the state legislature to decide the word of law … makes sense. We’re putting the cart before the horse — we’re becoming a talking point on the news — and by getting ahead, we’re opening ourselves up to legal action.
“As it’s written, it’s not an easy cut-and-dry policy to put in place. When it comes to gender identity and nicknames, we should not have to be the adjudicator. Putting a teacher on the phone with a parent because Jim is requesting to be called Sally puts that teacher in an awkward spot.”
At the March meeting, the board approved the second reading of the policy unanimously with no further discussion. Republican Alan Rummel said in the meeting that teachers should play a role in teaching morals in school. “It takes a village to raise a child,” he said.
Also added to the board’s policy code 7305: Code of Ethics and Standards of Conduct is a section on “Balance & Fairness” that requires staff members to “remain neutral” on controversial topics and “present the information without bias.” The code suggests that topics like Critical Race Theory and negative aspects of American history will be off limits in local classrooms, though it doesn’t go into specific details.
“All people deserve full credit and recognition for their struggles and accomplishments throughout United States history,” the policy reads. “The United States foundational documents shall not be undermined. No employee of Lee County Schools will make any attempt to discredit the efforts made by all people using foundational documents for reform.
“No fictional accounts or narratives shall be used to invalidate actual objective historical events. All people who contributed to American Society will be recognized and presented as reformists, innovators and heroes to our culture.”
Again, the wording mirrors similar policies passed in Florida, where the “Stop W.O.K.E.” act restricts how topics like race can be discussed in public schools. Florida is currently unable to enforce the act after a federal appeals court recently ruled against removing a temporary block on the legislation.