SPRING HILL — Elliot Long never felt unwelcome at Classical Preparatory School.
“Whenever they see my kid has two dads, they’ve always been very kind and warm to both of us,” said Long, the parent of a first-grader there.
The staff has supported Long’s partner, who works at the charter school and dedicates many hours to the students, school and community.
“But then something like this happens, which makes me question how sincere all of that is,” he said.
Long referred to Gov. Ron DeSantis’ news conference Monday at the school, where the governor signed HB 1557 into law and suggested that opponents of the measure support concepts such as “woke gender ideology in the first grade.”
Officially titled “Parental Rights in Education,” critics have dubbed it the “don’t say gay” bill. It prohibits instruction related to gender identity or sexual orientation in kindergarten through third grade — and potentially restricts such instruction for older kids.
Also under the law, school districts will not be allowed to discourage or prohibit parents from being notified of “critical decisions affecting a student’s mental, emotional, or physical well-being.” According to legislators, that provision was meant to address various situations, including when students confide in a school employee about their gender or sexual orientation.
“They allowed our students to be used in signing this disgusting piece of legislation,” said Long, a transgender man who protested outside the school and later sent a letter to the school’s administration deploring the event.
School officials said all students attending the bill signing ceremony had parental permission to participate. Some parents whose children do not attend the school brought their youngsters to the event to celebrate the bill becoming law, part of a crowd that applauded the governor several times.
In his letter, Long did not share in their support. He suggested that the school made LGBTQ students and staff feel unwelcome, and signaled that it could be unsafe for them to be themselves while there.
“I have weathered the damage done by other discriminatory bills, gay marriage bans, and the rest. But my own son’s school signing on to the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill has cut deep,” he wrote.
Asked about the complaint, school founder Anne Corcoran did not address Long’s concerns directly. Corcoran is the wife of education commissioner Richard Corcoran, who spoke in favor of the bill during the event, and their youngest daughter attended the bill signing.
“The governor signs many bills at public schools,” Anne Corcoran said in an email to the Tampa Bay Times. “It was honor to host the governor and an elected officials because they are part of our wonderful democratic process.”
The bill does not apply to charter schools.
DeSantis has gone to schools to highlight priority legislation.
Earlier in March, for instance, he visited St. Petersburg High School to sign a bill altering state testing requirements. He went to a charter school in Wesley Chapel to approve a new law making a financial literacy course a high school graduation requirement.
Those proposals have not generated the level of heated debate and divisiveness that HB 1557 has caused.
During his comments at the school, DeSantis asserted that most Floridians agree the bill is needed to ensure parents’ rights in public schools. He also invited its opponents to “stand up and say what you’re for.”
Long decided to do so, criticizing the measure as one that — through its vague language about age-appropriate instruction regarding sexual orientation and gender identity — creates an atmosphere where the LGBTQ community feels targeted.
“This weighed heavily on both of our minds,” Long said of himself and his partner.
He was not alone.
Parent Ashley Eberts said she also was taken aback by how the school handled the event.
“My kindergartner was in her day of learning and they stopped her day of learning to watch the press conference,” Eberts said. “I never gave permission for my child to watch that. … If the bill was about parental rights, I should have had the ability to say ‘No.’”
She said she particularly objected to one speaker’s comment that God doesn’t make mistakes, saying she would not teach that to her children. She also did not like what she perceived as the bill’s message that it’s somehow not age-appropriate for youngsters to learn about LGBTQ people.
Eberts said her eighth-grade son had made signs stating “It’s okay to be gay” and put them up around campus, and that he told her deputies providing security for the bill signing took them down. She said her son has LGBTQ friends and wanted to support them.
Now she, too, has concerns about the school that her family drives 30 minutes each way to attend because of its advanced curriculum, including Latin lessons.
Eberts said she might withdraw her three children from Classical Prep after this year because of the divides that the governor’s bill signing revealed to her.
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