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Students who want to change their name or pronouns in Sarasota schools must now get parental permission

A flow chart shows that students must ask a staff member for a pronoun change, who then asks the school administrator and counselor, who then ask the parents. If permission is denied by the parents, staff are told not to use the different name or pronouns.
SCREENSHOT: WUSF
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Sarasota County Schools have adopted a new policy regarding pronouns and name changes to conform with the Parental Rights in Education law.

Other school districts in the greater Tampa Bay region say they are still developing their new policies, or are handling the issue on a case by case basis.

The Sarasota County School district has adopted a new policy that requires school staff to notify the principal and school counselor and seek parental permission if a student asks to be called by a name and/or pronouns that are different than assigned at birth, apparently to align with the Parental Rights in Education law, which was signed by Governor Ron DeSantis and took effect in July.

A screenshot of a flow chart that showed how permission must now be requested, and to whom, was sent to WUSF by a source, and the district confirmed that the policy it depicts is now in place.

"Our Student Services team indicated that that flow chart is the procedure used to support students requesting a name/pronoun change," said Sarasota school district spokeswoman Kelsey Whealy. The flowchart is accessible by staff, in an online folder under student services, she said.

If a parent or guardian denies permission, then the student must be referred to by their given name and pronouns. If a parent grants permission, the relevant staff is notified and "schedules a conference to include administrator, student, parent/guardian and counselor to complete the gender support plan," the flow chart said.

Gail Foreman, who teaches history at Booker High School, said the policy has changed how she interacts with students.

"I have several kids that are transgender that have preferred names. And you know, we had to tell them, if you want to use your preferred name, I have got to call guidance, and they're going to get a hold of your parents, and then your parents are going to meet with guidance. So guys, don't say anything to me, if you're not out at home," she said.

"So you know, I quietly said to them, Look, you know I'll use your pronoun and preferred names. But I can't until we get a parent thing. So what do you want me to do? And they're like, it's okay, Ms. Foreman. Use my last name. So I said ok, legally I can do that."

The Parental Rights in Education law, often dubbed "Don't Say Gay" by critics, says schools may not discourage or prohibit parental notification of critical decisions affecting a student's mental, emotional, or physical health.

But it also says school districts may withhold information from parents “if a reasonably prudent person would believe that disclosure would result in abuse, abandonment, or neglect."

"These laws were written so vaguely and so poorly, that you can really be sued for so many things," said Derek Reich, 27, who teaches history at Sarasota High School, and pointed out the new policy's reference to not only pronouns, but also names.

"And they were written so poorly that, for example, this last week, our school district told us that look, Jonathan, whose government name is Jonathan, if you want to call him anything else — like his friends call him John, his parents call him John. If you want to call him by his nickname, John, you have to get a permission slip for him to call any student that wants to be called by something other than their official name on their birth certificate," he said.

"So there are so many minor things that teachers are concerned about. If I can't call Jonathan "John," when everyone in his family does without getting a permission slip signed, that's a really difficult place to be as a teacher," Reich added.

Foreman, who is 61, said some of her students used to be able to come out to her in class, even if they weren't out at home, and the parental notification requirement worries her, because not every child feels safe enough at home to come out as gay or transgender, and there is a danger that the child could face consequences that the school may not fully understand.

"By law, now I'm required to report that. And if they get a hold of the parent, the parent comes into school, we believe everything's all hunky dory, and that kid goes home. And then we get a call that the kid's committed suicide, that kid's in the hospital because the parent beat the snot out of them. I don't want to come home every night and know that I may have contributed to one of my students being harmed," said Foreman.

WUSF asked other area school districts if they had adopted new policies regarding student names and pronouns.

"We have guidance for instructional staff that is currently being revised. It should be available in the next 30 days," said Tanya Arja, spokeswoman for Hillsborough County Schools.

In Pinellas, spokeswoman Isabel Mascarenas said "the district works with families individually on a case by case basis," a policy that has been in place for several years.

Manatee County school spokesman Mike Barber said the district's general counsel "stated we are still awaiting direction from the Florida Department of Education on the gender/pronoun issue you have inquired about."

"In Pasco, we don’t have a policy regarding pronouns," said spokesman Stephen Hegarty. Polk County did not respond to a request for comment.

I cover health and K-12 education – two topics that have overlapped a lot since the pandemic began.