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Students at 6 Florida universities protest the sharing of trans students' health data

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Thousands of university students protested across Florida today. It's part of a statewide campaign to call out what they see as Governor Ron DeSantis' attacks on public education. At Florida International University in Miami, students marched across campus, chanting, let teachers teach, and, we say gay.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting) Ron DeSantis, we're not fools. We won't let you run our schools.

SHAPIRO: Kate Payne of member station WLRN was there. And, Kate, describe the scene and tell us about what policies they were protesting specifically.

KATE PAYNE, BYLINE: So here at Florida International University, there were at least 100 students and community members protesting today, and they were calling out the state for requesting data from public universities on which students were seeking gender-affirming care on campus - treatments like hormone therapy and puberty blockers. They are also protesting Governor Ron DeSantis' pledge to defund diversity, equity and inclusion efforts across public universities and his efforts to try and restrict how race and identity and history can be talked about in the classroom.

SHAPIRO: Did any of the students you met tell you about how they're personally being affected by these policies?

PAYNE: They did. So I spoke with Kaily LaChapelle, who was one of the main organizers of the protest and is the president of the Pride Student Union on campus, and they said they're hearing from students that they're losing sleep, that they're scared, that they're really rethinking if they want to stay in the state of Florida. LaChapelle says that virtually everything that they do on campus falls under diversity, equity and inclusion, including the Pride Student Union, which they said changed their life.

KAILY LACHAPELLE: It was the first time I found community. It was the first time I felt people actually, you know, were like me - that, you know, believed in the same things, actually supported me and respected me, made me feel included. And that was my first experience on this campus, and it never stopped.

PAYNE: And now, with Governor DeSantis threatening to ban DEI activities on campuses, LaChapelle is worried they'll lose that community.

SHAPIRO: How are universities responding to these directives from the state government?

PAYNE: Well, the public universities are state institutions, so they have to comply. Here at Florida International University, the school says they don't offer any of these health care services for transgender students on campus, so there wasn't really anything to report to the state. The school also told me that they don't track how many students on campus identify as trans, but it's not believed to be very many. And as far as some of the other state policies affecting DEI, some professors are scaling back or dropping classes that they worry state officials won't approve of. And so I am hearing from students and faculty that they see this as political interference, and they worry that it jeopardizes the legitimacy of these public universities.

SHAPIRO: And what more have you heard about the politics behind these policies?

PAYNE: Well, students I talked with today say that they see this as a way for Governor DeSantis to fire up the conservative base for his expected run for president in 2024. Here is Oscar Alvarez, a computer science student at FIU.

OSCAR ALVAREZ: I think that DeSantis is aware that there is a rise in the far right. And, alongside Trump as a competitor for the presidential campaign, they're trying to one-up each other on how they can entice this base and agitate this base, who sees these culture wars as a real issue.

PAYNE: And Alvarez says his family came to the U.S. from Cuba, where they were fleeing authoritarianism, and he says that's what he's seeing now from the DeSantis administration. And the governor says, you know, he's accounting to the property tax for taxpayer money and stopping what he says is woke ideology.

SHAPIRO: That's Kate Payne, education reporter at member station WLRN in Miami. Thank you.

PAYNE: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF LADY WRAY SONG, "KARMA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kate Payne