Story at a glance
- Florida students statewide on Thursday staged walkouts to protest the state’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which will go to a full floor vote in the Senate next week.
- Under the bill, primary school teachers in Florida would be prohibited from discussing certain LGBTQ+ topics with their students.
- Jack Petocz, the Flagler Palm Coast High School senior who organized Thursday’s protests on social media, said he had been suspended from his school “indefinitely” following the demonstrations.
Students in schools across Florida Thursday staged walkouts to protest the state’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill – set to go before the full state Senate on Monday – that would prohibit primary school educators from engaging in discussions related to sexual orientation or gender identity.
Officially known as the Parental Rights in Education bill, the legislation would restrict mention of LGBTQ+ topics in classrooms that are not “age appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students.” Parents would also be given greater authority to take legal action against school districts believed to be in violation.
“Today, those who will be most impacted by this dangerous piece of legislation — Florida students — mobilized by the thousands to walk out of class and demand a stop to the Don’t Say Gay bill,” the LGBTQ+ advocacy group Equality Florida said Thursday in a statement. “Their courage and resilience is to be applauded as they stand tall in the face of unprecedented bigotry in the legislature that would muzzle their teachers and erase them from classroom discussion.”
Proponents of the bill maintain that the legislation was merely designed to strengthen the rights of parents and give them a larger voice in the child’s education.
“I am really amazed at how something so simple turned into this,” State Sen. Dennis Baxley (R), the sponsor of the bill’s companion legislation in the Senate, said Monday just before the House bill was passed by its final committee.
Baxley, who identified himself during the committee meeting as “a guy who doesn’t hate anyone,” added that the bill’s anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment has been completely “fabricated by the media.”
“This does one simple thing – it decides who’s in charge,” he said. “I’m not trying to demonize anybody, I’m not trying to negate the values of teachers. I’m just trying to come back to center point. Parents must be in charge of these decisions.”
During a House vote in late February, the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Joe Harding (R) said: “I believe in the idea that creating boundaries at an early age of what it’s appropriate in our schools – when we are funding our schools – is not hate.”
In a statement on Twitter, Jack Petocz, the Flagler Palm Coast High School senior who organized Thursday’s protests on social media, called the bill “homophobic and discriminatory” and commended students across the state for pushing back against “regressive” legislation like “Don’t Say Gay.”
“We must let our politicians know that no matter how hard they try, they cannot suppress our identities or silence our voices,” he wrote. “Gen-Z will not stand idly by as our rights are stripped from us. It is now up to you to decide which side of history you will be on, the side that empowers us or the side that seeks to erase us.”
Petocz said after the rally at his own school, he was escorted off school grounds by school administrators and suspended indefinitely, despite having received prior approval from the school to hold the demonstration. According to the student’s statement on Twitter, he had been punished for distributing pride flags during the rally, which were confiscated by school officials.
“I believe this attempt to threaten me and remove me from campus is riddled with homophobia and bigotry,” Petocz, who is gay, told NBC News. “You’re silencing a queer student standing up for what he believes in, in his rights, and you’re disciplining him for challenging you on the allowance of pride flags in a gay rally? It’s ridiculous. It truly is.”
Should the bill pass next week in the state Senate, it will head to the desk of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), where it is expected to be signed into law.
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