SCHOOL BOARD TACKLES POLICY CHANGES AFTER PARENTAL RIGHTS BILL

Stanley Switlik guidance assistant Bill Eller receives a GEMS award at the June 28 school board meeting, recognizing his contributions to student wellness through the development of athletic and enrichment programs at the school. From left: Superintendent Theresa Axford, Eller, Stanley Switlik principal Christine Paul, school board chair John Dick. MONROE COUNTY SCHOOL DISTRICT/Contributed

A first reading of district policy revisions following the passage of the Parental Rights in Education bill consumed the largest portion of the Monroe County School Board’s June 28 meeting. However, both administrators and school board members made it abundantly clear that the revisions were minor and the district’s existing policies have never been at odds with the state’s guidance.

HB 1557, signed in March by Gov. Ron DeSantis, is designed to reinforce parents’ rights to make decisions regarding their children’s upbringing and education. The bill prohibits schools from instructing students on sexual orientation or gender identity in kindergarten through third grade, contains language permitting only instruction that is deemed “age-appropriate,” and requires schools to notify parents of any changes in services provided by the school related to a child’s mental, emotional or physical health and well-being.

Changes to the district’s policies in response to the bill were recommended by educational consulting firm Neola, the Florida state school board association’s preferred provider of policy services.

“I just want to say out loud that all of these statute-specific policies come from Neola,” said board member Mindy Conn. “They do the grunt work for us, but at the same time follow what Florida state statutes put out.”

“Large districts have policy and compliance departments. … Neola allows us to outsource that so that our administrators can focus on kids learning in the classroom,” added board member Sue Woltanski. “A lot of their employees are former Monroe County educators.”

Though edits to some policies required little more than changes to pronouns, some of the more significant additions included language that: encourages, and in some cases requires, district staff to notify parents of any changes in a student’s services or monitoring related to the student’s health and well-being; prohibits administrators from engaging students on social media; prohibits the aforementioned instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity; adds provisions for instruction on the ramifications of prejudice, racism and stereotyping as well as the contributions of African Americans to American society; clarifies that all health education instruction must be age-appropriate and developmentally appropriate; and adds requirements for education on dating violence and prevention, the benefits of sexual abstinence, and personal financial literacy and money management.

The changes also require the district to notify parents of all health care services offered at their student’s school while providing the option to decline any of the services.

In response to questions about the district’s needs to revise its curriculum in response to HB 1557, Superintendent Theresa Axford clarified that “absolutely none” of the material would need to be changed, as the district already follows the state’s official resources for curriculum. 

“We follow CPalms, which is the state’s authorized curriculum. That’s the only place that we get our curriculum,” said Axford. “There is no reference to any of this in any state-approved curriculum.”

In response to language prohibiting teachers from indoctrinating or persuading students to a particular point of view that is inconsistent with state academic standards, Axford also clarified that the district’s policy has always been to follow the state standards.

“And the fact that it’s not underlined or green (on the policy revision documents) means that it’s been our policy for a long time,” said Woltanski.

“What we’ve been accused of has not been happening in this school district,” added board chair John Dick. “I know that.”

“I will always say this: 99% of our policy manual is a regurgitation of state and federal law,” said school board vice chair Andy Griffiths. “Any time we try to expand, embellish or add our own vernacular, it’s a risk that I think our attorney would advise against. … We will follow the law, period.”

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Alex Rickert made the perfectly natural career progression from dolphin trainer to newspaper editor in 2021 after freelancing for Keys Weekly while working full time at Dolphin Research Center. A resident of Marathon since 2015, he fell in love with the Florida Keys community by helping multiple organizations and friends rebuild in the wake of Hurricane Irma. An avid runner, actor, and spearfisherman, he spends as much of his time outside of work on or under the sea having civil disagreements with sharks.