(This article has been updated with a quote from the school district about the FOCUS system.)
Starting Tuesday, teachers in Polk County public schools may not be allowed to call their students names like Billy, Nick, Bella, Jake, Gabe, Katie or Alex.
Unless parents fill out a new form providing “written consent for nicknames and shortened names,” those students may have to be William, Nicholas, Isabella, Jacob, Gabriel, Katherine and Alexandra during the school day.
Parents received a robocall and an email from the district this week explaining that a new state Board of Education rule requires parental approval for any deviation from a student’s legal name.
The “Parental Authorization for Deviation from Student’s Legal Name” form states that — under the code that deals with education records — school districts must obtain written consent to call students anything other than the names on their birth certificates.
The state Board of Education amended the code on July 19. In Polk County, the student’s preferred name or nickname will be entered into the Student Information System, called FOCUS.
Billy Flake is the parent of two students at Scott Lake Elementary School in South Lakeland — Abraham, 6, and Leonardo, 5. He calls them Abe and Leo, among a host of sweet terms of endearment. But he said he and his wife are outraged by what they think is the state’s reason for the change.
“With the state of Florida and their focus on culture wars, I and my wife believe that it is a way to create a trans-child registry,” Flake said. “So, you know, if a child’s legal name is John Smith, but they are transgendered and go by Sarah Smith, now they have to fill out a form that says they have to be referred to as Sarah. All of a sudden, now you have a registry without actually calling it a registry.”
Florida has outlawed discussion of sexuality and gender identity in public schools.
The form is one that is filled out by hand, so it is not clear how it could be aggregated as a registry unless teachers, administrators, someone in the district office or someone at the state level went through the forms and selected ones they thought might be for a transgender child. There are approximately 115,000 PCPS students.
“The records will be kept in our student information system (Focus), but the state does not have direct access to those records,” PCPS spokesman Kyle Kennedy said.
Parents consider ways to push back
Anita Carson is a former PCPS teacher and current field and advocacy manager at Equality Florida, an LGBTQ advocacy organization. She said the Florida Board of Education created the policy statewide to try to stop transgender and non-binary children from using a name that fits them best at school.
“Respond with, ‘Call my child the name they ask to be called,’” Carson urged parents on Facebook. “It’s protesting ‘parent micro-management’ and giving some amount of agency back to children about their lives and futures.”
But one parent said she asked if she could do that and was told ‘no.’
Flake said he and his wife were still discussing what to put on the form. He was considering having Chat GPT generate 400 names for each child and turning that in. But, he added, it’s just one more thing for the teacher to keep track of.
“To be an educator in Florida is, like, probably the most thankless version of that job I can imagine at this point,” Flake said.
Flake isn’t the only one who wants to respond sarcastically.
Stephen Abney, who lives in Winter Haven and has grown children, wrote in a Facebook post that parents should take a page out of the Florida Department of Education’s playbook, which is known for confusing rules and late-in-the-game updates.
“Please call my child ‘Steve’ on even days, except Mondays or in months with an R,” he wrote, tongue firmly planted in cheek. “Please call them ‘Stephen’ in months with an R. Please say ‘Hey you’ on Mondays, which is what we do at home. We’ll let you know of any changes to this at the last possible moment, in keeping with DOE’s best practice.”
And Jeff And Katy Peiffer, parents of a Davenport High School student, want their daughter Alexis referred to as “Arch Duchess of Davenport.”
Jimmy Allen Davis, a Deltona lawyer who has a 12-year-old in the seventh grade, urged parents on Facebook to invoke Florida Statute 1014, which says the state “may not infringe on the fundamental rights of a parent to direct the upbringing, education, health care, and mental health of his or her minor child without demonstrating that such action is reasonable and necessary.”
“The so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill … is actually your best tool to force (yes force) a school into compliance with your wishes,” he wrote on Facebook. “It gave each parent unilateral authority to direct the education and care of your child.”
Davis said he has already invoked 1014 to order his child’s teacher to never instruct his child that slavery was beneficial to slaves by teaching them work skills or to show them any video produced by the Prager University Foundation.
“You want to soft protest, cool. You want to command, 1014 is your authority to do so,” Davis wrote. “And my reading of the statute shows no limit to that authority (being a fundamental right and all) so if you want to order them to listen to your kid’s wishes… go ahead.”
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