Like those Facebook relationship statuses, the T-shirt story that broke yesterday in St. Johns County, Florida is complicated: not meeting policy, not not-meeting policy, what is the policy and how is it enforced … it’s complicated.

For those who missed it, last Tuesday, March 29, 2022, a teacher showed up at school wearing a T-shirt with the message, “Protect Trans Kids.” The teacher was asked to don a different top by the school’s administration and the teacher complied, but not before Florida’s culture warriors exploited it.

Snagged from local ed reporter extraordinaire, @emdrums. (Her Twitter handle.)

First, we must acknowledge that the shirt violated the school district policy. Teachers are not allowed to wear anything with a message unless it is a district name, logo, or slogan related to a district school or an event or activity related to the district. (Grumpy Old Teacher [GOT] is unable to provide a hyperlink for you. Despite searching the school board policies, collective bargaining agreement, and googling policies, nothing turned up.)

That would mean that teachers wearing a shirt that said “Protect Straight Kids” would also be told to take it off and given a replacement.

This is where it gets complicated. GOT, working in the colossus to the north a/k/a Duval County, has worn T-shirts on occasion with messages, none of them political. For example, “Without Geometry, Life is Pointless” and one that features the Math and Science Departments fighting over who gets the ‘c’ for Einstein’s Theory of Relativity or the Pythagorean Theorem.

It was only some classroom humor, teacher jokes, to keep the mood light. But under the St. Johns policy, those shirts are forbidden.

That’s the easy way out for a school board, but before we denounce them, they are fiduciary agents for the people of their district. They must carefully allocate their resources, never enough, never sufficient, to the educational purposes of their school system. Avoiding lawsuits through no-message dress codes helps them minimize their legal costs of defending themselves in court.

It’s complicated. We cannot ignore the setting either, St. Johns County, the school district where the Board fought a long, losing battle over keeping a trans student out of the bathroom of his choice.

Protect Trans Kids. That’s all the T-shirt said, but yes, of course, it was saying so much more. It was a message of support, a message of acknowledgment, and a message that here was a safe place for children who understand themselves as something other than traditional, heterosexual, or cisgendered persons.

Naturally, that triggered a person like Esther Byrd, a Q-Anon devotee whose main claim to fame is that her husband serves in the Florida legislature until Ron DeSantis, governor of Florida, a/k/a Field Marshall of the Culture Wars, appointed her to Florida’s State Board of Education. It’s complicated, isn’t it? This really isn’t about a T-shirt.

GOT’s high school is generally considered a safe school for LGBTQ+ teenagers. It’s a magnet school, ostensibly one for accelerated (IB and AP) classes that lets young persons emerge from their mandatory education years with a lot of college credit already under their belts.

But it’s also a school with a sizeable number of LGBTQ+ students, whose numbers are large enough to be a community where such a teenager working through their identity agenda, which is the developmental agenda of all adolescents–who am I?–that dominates these years, find others like themselves with whom to form friendships and social groups.

Thursday they held a demonstration. Reported as a walk-out from class, it actually took place during one of the lunch periods. The students who organized the demonstration asked permission to hold it, but they were denied although when they acted, they were allowed to go on with it.

They wanted to walk out the front door, but were warned that constituted leaving campus and would result in referrals. Instead, they were directed to the football stadium. A local TV news station, which some had to have called, showed up to take video from the public sidewalk and talk to a few students through the fence.

The demonstration went beyond the bell that signaled the end of lunch. About two dozen students appeared to be involved; the rest were spectators who were caught up in the excitement and milled around. As they prepared to go to class, all were surprised that they were intercepted and waited in a line to receive a tardy pass.

Some objected, but an administrator informed them that as they had participated in an act of civil disobedience, they had to be prepared for the consequences. There was no condemnation of what they did, why they did it, or the passion they felt about Florida’s new Don’t Say Gay law (DSG), but an impromptu lesson about engaging in protest.

It’s complicated. Whatever the sympathies or lack thereof of school administrations, the routine and student code of conduct will be upheld. GOT is now not speaking of his school, but all schools everywhere. Teenagers, gaining in autonomy and exercising that autonomy, learn that they have to weigh the actions they plan, what might ensue, and accept what happens if they go through with their action. And really, a tardy is all they received? That’s a very light punishment given that they may pile up 5 tardies during a quarter before there is a disciplinary consequence. GOT believes number six results in a parent phone call. You have to get to number seven before a student receives detention.

Thursday was the International Day of Transgender Visibility, which occurs on March 31 of every year. GOT supposes the students knew that when they planned their event. It was a protest against the DSG law. The teenagers know as we all do what the law is intended to do: first silence, then disappearance.

Don’t Say Gay means Don’t Be Gay. Everyone gets it despite the denials of politicians and Q-Anoners, which when you think about it, is kinda funny given what Q stands for in the list LGBTQ+.

What’s a teacher to do? We have a responsibility to make our classrooms a welcoming place, one which accepts students however they come to us, one that supports their developmental agenda and helps them along their path to adulthood, and protects their rights.

How do we do that amid these culture wars, where one side paints us as groomers and pedophiles and the other as cowards? Every teacher has to figure this out for themselves.

What can we say and what should we not say? What adjustments should we make to our lesson plans? Do we drop certain topics? The College Board, purveyors of the AP experience, warn us that we cannot deviate from the prescribed curriculum map or we risk losing the AP designation for the classes we offer. That might not matter to a teacher or a school, but think about students submitting their transcripts to colleges wanting credit for their AP classes.

For example, AP Human Geography has an entire unit on human sexuality. How does a teacher negotiate that given that the DSG law empowers parents to sue school districts if they object to the lessons? Long before the current controversy, GOT knew a teacher of AP HUG who said he always skipped that unit. Even before DSG, it was known to upset parents.

But the College Board insists the unit be taught.

It’s complicated.

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