Alabama schools chief: Teachers could have to navigate ‘tricky conversations’ after new law passed

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Alabama’s teachers aren’t teaching elementary students about gender identity or sexual orientation, state superintendent Eric Mackey said, but likely will need guidance on how to cut off classroom discussion if it does happen because it is now prohibited by a new law.

That new law enacted and signed by Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey this week prohibits classroom instruction or discussion on gender identity or sexual orientation from grades K-5 that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate. That language was added to a bill that bans K-12 students from using bathrooms and school facilities inconsistent with gender identity.

“We do not have any standards that discuss gender identity or sexuality in K-5,” Mackey said, “and so we do not think [the law] has any impact on what we’re doing. ”

But Mackey took issue with critics dubbing it the “Don’t Say Gay” law.

“I think it’s kind of a misnomer, in my opinion,” he said, “to call it ‘do not say gay’ because it also does not say straight.”

The new law will take effect before the start of next school year, allowing some time for teachers to learn what can and cannot be discussed, he added.

Read more: Alabama legislature passes surprise ‘Don’t Say Gay’ amendment, transgender bathroom restrictions

“I think it could create some tricky situations because let’s say, for whatever reason, it comes up in a classroom,” Mackey said. “A child says ‘I have two mommies,’ for example. If a teacher enters a discussion, or whether their personal belief might be pro- or anti-, that it does not matter what your personal belief is. The law says they can not introduce discussion on it. ”

Another example Mackey shared is if a child wants to discuss a sermon the child heard where the preacher spoke against homosexuality.

“If the teacher engages in conversation with that child,” Mackey said, “they’re engaged in a classroom discussion. The teacher has violated the law. And that’s what I mean by tricky situations. ”

“Teachers are going to have to know how to politely cut off discussion, without hurting a child’s feelings. They do not know that this is a taboo subject. ”

“We teach all children who come to us,” he added. “We want every child to feel welcomed and loved and cared for at school, period. But how the teacher cuts off that conversation, in a professional way, is something that we’re going to have to think about. ”

Mackey said teachers likely already have some experience redirecting or cutting off inappropriate conversations, particularly with older students.

Mackey and the state board of education are charged with issuing rules to implement the new law. No civil or criminal penalties are required for teachers who violate the law. But, Mackey said, a teacher would be guilty of violating the teacher code of ethics if they violated the new law.

Read more: “Can we not just live?” Alabama’s anti-LGBTQ bills signed into law as teens worry about their future

Local boards of education should have policies on what to do if a teacher violates the teacher code of ethics, he said.

Alabama Association of School Boards Executive Director Sally Smith told AL.com Thursday that prohibiting discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity should not have an impact because those subjects aren’t taught in Alabama schools.

“However,” she added, “we are concerned that this amendment could make it even more difficult for school faculty to create safe environments for some students and families.”

Vic Wilson, executive director of the Council for Leaders in Alabama Schools, said his organization will be working with the state department of education to make sure the law is implemented properly. “Our principals around the state and our teachers will continue to educate and care for our students,” he said.

Mackey said he agreed with the idea that some topics are inappropriate for teachers to talk about with elementary-aged children.

“It’s going to make some teachers have to ask, Okay, where is the line? How do I respond to those kinds of questions or things that come up in the classroom? Teachers have always had to do this, this just my bring some of that to the forefront and make people a little bit nervous about figuring out where that gray area is. ”

On the final day of the legislative session, Alabama lawmakers added their own version of the “Don’t Say Gay” to a bill already written to target the state’s LGBT population. AL.com wants to hear from you. Email you response in 300 words to [email protected].

Read more: Which legislators voted for Alabama’s ‘Don’t Say Gay’ law?

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