color photograph of a young person sitting on a low stone wall next to a middle-aged woman wearing a dark blue t-shirt that reads "ban fascists not books." the young person holds a white paper sign with red handwritten text that reads "protect us from fascists"
ORLANDO, FLORIDA, UNITED STATES - APRIL 21: A student holds a placard at a "Walkout 2 Learn" rally to protest Florida education policies outside Orlando City Hall on April 21, 2023, in Orlando, Florida. (Photo by Paul Hennessy/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Florida public school students are pushing back against the new wave of discriminatory policies that went into effect at the start of this school year. In Miami-Dade County, public school students spoke out at a Sept. 6 school board meeting in support of designating October as LGBTQ History Month despite overwhelming opposition. 

In Sarasota’s historically liberal public college, New College of Florida, students and professors are suing the state against Senate Bill 266, which prohibits education on “identity politics” and a curriculum that acknowledges systemic oppression in the U.S. Students and advocates say the censorship is harmful to their present and future communities and that they will continue to speak out in opposition.

“We’re seeing these attacks on academic freedom across the board,” said Maxx Fenning, the executive director of PRISM FL. “It’s important for us to be represented in history and to be represented in schools.”

The far-right group Moms for Liberty began circulating a flier a week before the meeting, advertising to protest the designation for “explicitly implying sexual ideology in schools which is wrong & directly violates HB-07 Parental Rights in Education Bill.” This is the third year that school board member Lucia Baez-Geller has sponsored the initiative. Last year, she sponsored a similar initiative but was voted down after vocal conservative opposition said the initiative provided a curriculum that violated the law. This year, the initiative does not include any prescribed curriculum. In 2021, the initiative passed nearly unanimously. The board voted 3-5 against the initiative after more than seven hours of public comment and deliberation. 

When discussing the significance of the designation, Fenning referred to a concept in education called “mirrors and windows.” 

“Mirrors let us look back at ourselves … There are people who have experienced that same discrimination and been able to be some of the most successful and influential people in history. There’s something so powerful about that,” Fenning said. “Windows [help us] see through into the lives of other people who might be different from us and build empathy for other people that might not share the same experiences.”

Over the past year, Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Florida Department of Education have signed more than 18 education-related bills into law, including House Bill 1467, which calls for review of library and classroom materials available to students in public schools and requires school administration to respond to parents’ complaints. HB 1069 also expands the original “Don’t Say Gay Bill”’s prohibition on classroom instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity to include pre-K and fourth through eighth grades to restrictions. The original law, HB 1557, only applied to kindergarten through third grade. While the state’s attorney general has decided that the “Don’t Say Gay” law doesn’t apply to school libraries, teachers and librarians are still implementing it. 

According to 2017 data in a report by the Black LGBTQIA+ civil rights organization the National Black Justice Coalition and the Gay, Lesbian, Straight, Education Network (GLSEN), 51.6% of Black LGBTQIA+ students felt unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation, 40.2% because of their gender expression, and 30.6% because of their race or ethnicity. With this new censorship in place, young queer and trans people in Florida may face even more dangerous circumstances as hate crimes against LGBTQIA+ communities are on the rise nationally.

According to a 2016 report by the GLSEN analyzing data from 2013, more than half of the LGBTQIA+ students who did not plan to finish school cited hostile or unsupportive school climates as a barrier. In a recent study by the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law and Clark University, 88% of 113 LGBTQIA+ parents surveyed said they were “very or somewhat concerned” about the effects of the “Don’t Say Gay” law on their children and families. Thirteen percent said their LGBTQIA+ children expressed fears about the future related to living in Florida.

Several districts in the state have already passed resolutions recognizing LGBTQIA+ history months, including Palm Beach, Broward, and Hillsborough counties. But in Miami-Dade, the issue remained contested for more than seven hours. 

“[A] symbolic act of solidarity is much needed right now because many queer students all throughout Florida feel unwelcome in their schools in the current conditions, mostly due to the onslaught of bills that have been targeting us,” said Natalie, a student at Dr. Michael Krop Senior High in North Miami Beach, during the board meeting. “The feeling that many queer students in Florida have is that they’re like insects in their school, and that is the same energy given by this very room today … What I am disappointed in is the lie that some people say that a whole group of people are indoctrinated and groomers and that that’s not prejudiced … How are you going to look at me, a child, in the eye and tell me that I’m some kind of pervert or a groomer trying to brainwash your kid? I’m a kid myself.” 

Fenning says students and community members should be attending school board meetings to have their voices heard. 

“Let’s ask ourselves, are we truly implementing an innovative curriculum that caters to our diverse community if we are refusing to acknowledge the existence and experiences of a significant portion of our population?” said Caroline Soto, a senior at iPrep Academy in Miami-Dade County and secretary of the school’s Gay Straight Alliance. “If anything, we are only regressing in our classrooms and learning environments. The idea of an LGBTQ History Month is nothing new … It’s about creating a safe and inclusive environment where LGBTQ+ students and staff can feel valued and understood. When students see their identities and experiences validated, it can have a profoundly positive effect on their mental and emotional well-being.” 

At New College, professors, students, and NCF Freedom, Inc., are litigating against state Education Commissioner Manny Diaz Jr., members of the state university system’s Board of Governors, members of the New College Board of Trustees, and New College Interim President Richard Corcoran. The lawsuit states that DeSantis and Republican state lawmakers, who control the House and Senate, have “adopted as state policy the goal of prohibiting the dissemination of certain ideas” through recent legislation.

The lawsuit, filed in the Northern District of Florida, takes aim at a part of SB 266 that sets strict prohibitions on instruction of certain topics in “general education core courses” at state colleges and universities. The law, which was passed in May 2023, requires that such courses “may not distort significant historical events,” include a curriculum that teaches “identity politics,” or violate a state law that restricts the way certain race-related topics can be taught in schools.

The law also prohibits curriculum that is “based on theories that systemic racism, sexism, oppression, and privilege are inherent in the institutions of the United States and were created to maintain social, political, and economic inequities.”

The 2023 law would strip away numerous course offerings from New College students, including “Queer History: Sexuality in the 20th Century United States,” “Queer Studies,” “Race, Gender and Sexuality,” “Sociology of Gender and the Body,” and “Topics in Feminist Philosophy.” Such courses would likely “be prohibited outright, or at risk of being chilled” by the law, the plaintiffs’ attorneys argued.

The lawsuit asked a judge to block the state from enforcing the 2023 law and to declare that the measure is unconstitutional.

Alexandra Martinez is the Senior News Reporter at Prism. She is a Cuban-American writer based in Miami, Florida, with an interest in immigration, the economy, gender justice, and the environment. Her work...