Florida mom of three January Littlejohn, 45, used to be “a huge proponent” of the public school system. “I was even ‘volunteer of the 2019-2020 school year’ at my daughter’s school,” she told The Post.
But that all changed in September of 2020 when she learned that officials at Deerlake Middle School were surreptitiously holding meetings with her then 13-year-old daughter about her gender identity without parental consent.
“I can no longer trust the state to . . . make sure that I am included in critical conversations happening with my child,” declared Littlejohn, a stay-at-hom mom and licensed mental health counselor.
When Littlejohn asked school officials what was going on, they told her they couldn’t reveal anything because her daughter was protected by anti-discrimination law.
Littlejohn said she was left in the dark until she finally secured a meeting six weeks later with three school officials who showed her a six-page document about her daughter’s “transgender support session.” It spoke about her chosen name, preferred pronouns, what restrooms she would use, and where she wanted to stay on overnight field trips.
In short, her young daughter was socially transitioning at school without her knowledge. Now Littlejohn is suing the school district for violating her parental rights.
Although a judge recently granted the district’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit, the family is planning to appeal. “These types of decisions should not be occurring without parental notification and consent,” Littlejohn said.
Situations like Littlejohn’s would now be prevented by Florida’s Parental Rights in Education Act — dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay Bill” by its opponents — a provision largely ignored by the media when it was first introduced in January 2022. At the time, critics blasted the bill’s limitation of in-class discussion of gender and sexuality, and breezed past the bill’s focus on parental rights.
Section one of the legislation, signed into law by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis last March, affirms the rights of parents to be involved in any gender identity intervention between the school and their child. It bans schools from hiding information about mental health counseling and supports monitoring from parents, except in extreme cases that would “result in abuse, abandonment, or neglect.”
The lawmakers who penned the Parental Rights in Education Act found policies in at least seven Florida counties that could remove parents from important conversations about their children’s gender identity. The law now makes these policies illegal.
The other part of the bill, which sought to regulate discussion of gender and sexuality in the classroom, sparked nationwide protests, with critics slamming it as an “aggressive attack” on LGBTQ Floridians and claiming it “endangers the safety of all students.”
Protesters wielded signs stating “protect trans kids,” “our existence is not inappropriate” and “we won’t be erased.” Employees of Disney, one of the state’s largest employers, staged a walkout. Florida state Sen. Lauren Book accused the legislation of bringing “George Orwell’s dystopian novel, ‘1984,’ a step closer to reality,” and even President Biden condemned it as “hateful.”
Among the critics was Zander Moricz, a current Harvard freshman and recent graduate of the Pine View School in Sarasota County who told ABC News that his principal forbade him from speaking about his LGBTQ activism in his graduation address as class president. Instead, when he gave his speech in May 2022, he used his curly hair as a euphemism for being gay as he criticized the bill.
“There are going to be so many kids with curly hair who need a community like Pine View and they won’t have one,” Moricz said. “Instead, they’ll try to fix themselves so they can exist in Florida’s humid climate.”
But, despite all the backlash, the law took effect as planned on July 1, and eventually the media frenzy died down. Now, six months into the bill’s existence, The Post asked experts, parents and educators: What has been the true impact of Florida’s new law?
Have LGBTQ rights been curtailed, as was feared by so many — or have parental rights been shored up? Or is the reality somewhere in between?
In just seven pages, the Parental Rights in Education Act bans “classroom instruction” on gender identity in kindergarten through third grade. It also prohibits “classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity in certain grade levels.”
“It was fear-mongering,” Moms for Liberty founder and Florida mom Tina Descovich told the Post.
Although Florida public schools never had any official curriculum about gender and sexuality in kindergarten through third grade, the writers of the bill say they found evidence of it seeping into classrooms. They pointed to Palm Beach County School District’s Guidelines for Curriculum, where teachers are urged to “include affirmative topics about LGBTQ+ persons in curriculum and classroom discussions.” Most crucially, “no parental notification is needed for these classroom discussions,” the Guidelines say.
While it’s unclear just how common such lessons are, Descovich said parents like her just want to know what’s going on behind classroom doors “because so much trust was broken over the past couple of years.”
Meanwhile, critics of the bill worried that its vagueness would cause mass self-censorship among teachers and even students, because what actually constitutes “instruction” or “classroom discussion” of gender and sexuality was left open to interpretation.
Many imagined worst-case scenarios: What happens if a child asks an innocent question about why their classmate has two moms? Does “classroom discussion” apply just to teachers, or can two students get in trouble for talking about gender or sexuality?
Norma Schwartz, a mom of two and vice president of education at Miami Dade County Council Parent Teachers Association, insists the law has left teachers confused and cautious. “The vagueness has made educators feel they’re just better off wiping the slate clean . . . so they’re not the person who gets the school district in trouble.”
In April, a lawsuit filed by Equality Florida and Family Equality alleged the bill violated students’ free speech, equal protection and due process rights, and called it an “effort to control young minds through censorship.” A second lawsuit filed in July called out the law’s “intentionally vague and sweeping scope.”
DeSantis’s office filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuits in June, assuring the law would not prevent LGBTQ students or teachers from putting family photos on their desks, nor would it police casual conversations in the classroom. It clarifies “teachers [are[ free to respond if students discuss . . . their identities or family life” and “to answer [students’] questions about their families.”
The Florida Education Association union has since issued updated guidance for teachers stating they can display family photos, rainbow flags, safe-space stickers, and affiliations with Gay-Straight Alliance clubs.
“It does seem that a lot of that has been clarified and put into perspective,” FEA president Andrew Spar told The Post.
But not everyone is satisfied.
In a statement released after the state’s clarifications, Equality Florida Senior Political Director Joe Saunders said the bill remains “bigoted and dangerous.”
Some say censorship in classrooms persists despite the updated guidance. According to Norma Schwartz’s eighth-grade daughter, some teachers took down posters saying “all are welcome” and removed stickers on doors designating safe spaces ahead of the school year.
And many questions still remain unanswered — including what exactly constitutes a violation of the law. Because the law allows parents to sue their school district if they have a claim, the outcomes of these suits will set the ultimate precedent for what is and isn’t allowed in Florida classrooms.
Andrew Spar says school districts are bracing for an inevitable flood of legal challenges by beefing up their litigation budgets. “School districts . . . [are] going to be investigating a lot more complaints from parents, he said.”
And the lawsuits are beginning to trickle in. In October, a dad in West Palm Beach made headlines after he sued his local school district for displaying two LGBTQ flags in his seventh-grade son’s classroom. He alleges his son’s teacher is trying to “mold his child’s mind without his consent.”
Spar says that, until such suits are ruled on by the courts, teachers will likely err on the side of self-censorship.
Meanwhile, stories like January Littlejohn’s are becoming more common — and sometimes they are matters of life and death.
Earlier this year, Florida dad Wendell Perez made headlines for suing his daughter’s school district in Clay County after they allegedly met with her about her gender identity and secretly facilitated a social transition, complete with a different name and pronouns. Perez alleges the school intervened without including him due to concerns over his Catholic beliefs and an assumption that he wouldn’t support his child.
He said he was only made aware that his daughter was assuming a different identity after she attempted suicide in the school bathroom in January 2022 — something he believes he might have been able to help prevent had he known the extent of his daughter’s suffering. “The school messed it up,” he said.
Similar policies cutting parents out of crucial gender conversations are popping up across the country. They have drawn criticism from Dr. Erica Anderson, a California-based clinical psychologist specializing in gender identity who takes “strenuous exception to the fact that some of these districts literally are putting into practice deception of parents.”
Anderson, a transgender woman herself, filed an amicus brief in June asking a Maryland court to reverse its favorable decision toward a school district’s policy that cuts parents out of conversations about their children’s transitions.
“Are parents struggling with these issues of gender? Oh yes, they are,” Anderson told The Post. “But my experience as a clinical psychologist has been that parents love their children and know what’s best for their children.”
Vernadette Broyles, the lawyer representing both the Littlejohn and Perez families, also strongly supports Florida’s new law. “Had that bill been in place when the school officials . . . engaged in these activities, their actions would have been very clearly and unmistakably prohibited,” she said.
Littlejohn said the heated protests of the past year simply obscured the true importance of the bill. “It was a very effective propaganda campaign that occurred to distract from the bulk of what the bill really does, which, in the end, is a protection for parental rights.”