Human Rights Watch calls on Biden to fight DeSantis censorship law

"People feel empowered to attack queer students because if the legislators can do it, they think they can do it too," one student told the human rights group.

Warning that hateful laws and policies will only spread if not challenged, legal experts joined human rights campaigners on Wednesday in calling on the Biden administration to take action against the “vicious” attacks on LGBTQ+ and Black people, both students and teachers, that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has waged through his state’s schools.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) was joined by grassroots group Florida Rising and the Rule of Law Impact Lab at Stanford Law School in releasing a new reporttitled, Why Do They Hate Us So Much?”: Discriminatory Censorship Laws Harm Education in Florida.”

The report’s title stems from a question Black students asked one of teachers interviewed by HRW between January and April 2024, months after the state government released new standards for teaching African American history. The new standards teach students that Black Americans benefited from slavery and discourage students from learning about contributions Black individuals have made to U.S. history, asking children in Florida schools “to simply identify African American individuals,” according to Education Week.

The new teaching standards, along with a number of laws passed by Republican lawmakers since 2021, have helped create “an environment of censorship and discrimination in classrooms that harms education for all Florida students but is especially hostile in its impact on Black Floridians and LGBTQ Floridians,” said HRW in the report.

Through interviews with more than 60 teachers, students, administrators, and parents as well as reviews of Florida’s education policies, court record, and media accounts, HRW found that in just over three years, the public school system in the state has devolved into an environment where educators and children fear retaliation for speaking about racism, LGBTQ+ rights, and other social justice issues.

“People feel empowered to attack queer students because if the legislators can do it, they think they can do it too,” a high school student named Kara told HRW. “I’ve heard slurs being said constantly and no teacher bats an eye and it’s like, whoa, why aren’t you doing anything about it? We need more protections for queer students. We need schools that are an inclusive space.”

A parent named Patricia told the group the DeSantis administration has waged “an attack on Blackness” that has led people across the state “to feel hopeless.”

The new laws include a ban on so-called “critical race theory,” a legal theory that is not taught on public K-12 schools but has been adopted as a flashpoint for conservatives who appear to define the term as any discussion of structural racism or the legacy of slavery in the U.S.; the Stop Wrongs Against Our Kids and Employees (Stop WOKE) Act, which limits classroom discussions of racism; and laws limiting classroom lessons on sexual orientation and gender identity, including one commonly known as the “Don’t Say Gay or Trans” law.

The report notes that since DeSantis and the Republican Party began introducing the new laws, teachers have been fired and investigated for such supposed transgressions as refusing to remove a Black Lives Matter flag from a classroom, showing a Disney film that included a gay character, using the gender-neutral honorific Mx., and posting on social media about concerns over book bans.

Trey Walk, a U.S. democracy researcher for Human Rights Watch, noted that the report was released on Juneteenth, the national holiday which marks the day enslaved Black people in Texas learned that the Emancipation Proclamation had ordered their freedom. DeSantis has refused to make the day a state holiday and has not formally recognized the day since 2020.

“June 19 is Juneteenth, a time we should reckon with the devastating costs of suppressing information, including about slavery and its legacies, that will move the United States forward,” said Walk. “We’re also celebrating Pride Month, a time we cherish the freedom of LGBTQ people to be represented and valued, including in their schools.”

Amrit Singh, executive director at the Rule of Law Impact Lab, said the Biden administration must enact “robust civil rights protections to combat this trend of discriminatory censorship and book bans in schools.”

The groups called on President Joe Biden to hold a national summit on educational censorship and said Congress should increase funding for the Department of Education’s (DOE) Office for Civil Rights; hold public hearings on censorship laws like those pushed by DeSantis; and pass the Books Save Lives Act to clarify that discriminatory censorship in schools violates the U.S. Constitution.

They also called on the DOE to increase community engagement with students, teachers, and families who have been impacted by censorship laws in schools; issue guidance clarifying that laws distorting or restricting classroom content may deny students from protected classes educational opportunities, which may amount a civil rights violation; and initiate compliance reviews in school districts and state where a large number of civil rights complaints are filed.

“The question all officials must now address is how to ensure students learn U.S. history and the contributions and cultures of the many people of the United States with accuracy and nuance,” said HRW, “and discuss and think critically about these topics in a context where they may express their identities and their opinions free from discrimination and fear.”

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