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April 13 was the first day of the 10th Annual Stonewall National Education Project (SNEP), a four-day symposium for educators.

But that’s not the story. Only four teachers from the state of Florida registered to attend — in years past, that number was anywhere from 50 to 100. Instead, there are more attendees traveling from out of state for the event.

The Stonewall National Archives & Museum, which hosts the event, says teachers have been scared away because of attacks by the Florida legislature — “Don’t Say Gay” and book bans just to name a few. Teachers in Duval County were told to remove their “safe space” stickers, Miami-Dade County voted against LGBTQ History Month, a graphic novel telling the story of Anne Frank has been removed from a Vero Beach High School, and a Tallahassee principal was forced to resign after showing a photo of Michelangelo’s statue of David to sixth graders.

“We’ve not only heard it from teachers, we’ve heard it from school board members, we’ve heard it from other kinds of professionals that work within the schools or work around people in the schools,” said Robert Kesten, the executive director of the Stonewall museum. “Although Florida has the maximum number of people who hold that fear, there are other states where teachers are unnerved as well.”

During the symposium, educators have attended sessions and discussed curriculums that provide a welcoming environment in public schools, and introducing LGBT history and culture to lesson plans. As of late, there have also been more conversations surrounding safety of teachers, students and families. Attendees have included teachers, school administrators, school unions, school board members, and representatives from local and state government.

Of the four teachers from Florida attending, Kesten says one will wear a mask throughout the entire symposium to hide their identity and has asked that no pictures be taken of them. Other Florida-based teachers told him they were too scared to attend, others dropped out, a few were not able to get substitutes, and other regulars were not responding to the museum’s outreach.

This is also the first year that there will be no representatives from the Florida Departments of Health and Education attending the conference. However, there will be teachers attending from Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, North Carolina, Oregon, Nebraska, Texas, and Washington, D.C. There will also be a presenter from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Tom Edwards, a gay school board member from Sarasota, will be a guest speaker.

Edwards, who is gay, made headlines when he and 13 other Florida school board members were included on Gov. Ron DeSantis’s list of those who push “woke” ideology and don’t protect parental rights, according to the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. In March, he walked out of a school board meeting after being called “an LGBTQ groomer" during public comments; he shares the dais with Bridget Ziegler, who serves as the school board chairwoman, founded Moms for Liberty, and is the wife of Florida GOP chairman Christian Ziegler.

“It’s important, I think, for all citizens to be aware that our rights are being attacked, whether we’re from the LGBTQ+ community or the Black and brown community or women’s rights,” Edwards said. “I wanted to let everybody know that A. I’m alive and well and B. That there’s hope, because I feel that the adverse impact of such hate from the extremists has woken up — no pun intended — the rest of the population and people are really paying attention.”

Considering the low attendance from Florida teachers this year, he said it’s “completely understandable,” as they’ve been “under attack from their government for the last two years.”

“They’ve been regulated and legislated for reasons that are imaginary and there’s no basis or merit other than political and what may seemingly be financial gain,” he said.

The symposium also includes the announcement of a national task force on April 15, a group that will meet throughout the year to brainstorm solutions to “root cause problems” that have led to hate speech and actions.

“I’ve become aware of how much stronger we are each time there is a setback,” Kesten said with optimism. “I think that the whole idea of Pride, the whole idea of what is expected of us as human beings is growing and that's a really good sign.”

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