Jack Petocz, the Flagler Palm Coast High School junior who organized last November’s protest against two local school board members’ attempt to ban books from school libraries, is featured today in a Page One New York Times article that examines a surge of attempted and actual book bans in school districts across the country, including in Flagler.
The 1,800-word article describes book bans and legislative efforts to restrict or remove books in several states, the new tactics that conservative or reactionary groups are using to pressure school boards, including through social media, the politicalization of the challenges, the almost exclusive focus on books relating to LGBTQ or anti-racist themes, and the involvement of new pressure groups such as Florida’s “Moms for Liberty.”
“I was truly so surprised when the NYT reached out,” Petocz said around noon today by text. “I felt empowered that our message and efforts within Flagler County were being heard throughout the country. Our protest hopefully has inspired other students to take action and stop these attempts at censorship becoming increasingly commonplace.” The Times circulates to 7.8 million subscribers online and in print.
Petocz, the only student in recent memory that a school board member censored as he was addressing the board, mobilized a protest after Board member Jill Woolbright filed a challenge to four titles in school libraries. The challenge caused the titles to be removed from circulation. Woolbright in a criminal complaint filed with the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office and later in especially shrill statements at school board meetings declared one of the titles’ circulation “criminal” because of its sexual themes. Woolbright was supported by Board member Janet McDonald (the board member who’d censored Petocz), who used similar language to describe some of the books in question, especially George Johnson‘s All Boys Aren’t Blue, a memoir of growing up Black and queer.
At the November protest, Petocz arrayed stacks of books on the ban list that residents had contributed, for free distribution, and galvanized students, teachers and others to speak against the bans.
The protest Petocz organized drew a counter-protest that included hate elements such as the Three Percenters (their presence was observed and documented) and, according to one school board member, Proud Boys. (See: “Student Protesters Face Hail of Vile Obscenities, Taunts and Threats From Group Claiming to Speak For Children.”) In early January, Woolbright and McDonald objected to wording in a district statement that would have condemned all “hate groups,” and had those two words removed.
A district committee reviewed the books Woolbright wanted banned and ruled them all suitable for circulation. Superintendent Cathy Mittelstadt barred All Boys Aren’t Blue from returning to shelves pending certain procedures that would allow parents to forbid their own child from barring the book–but not keep the book from circulating.
“As a gay student myself, those books are so critical for youth, for feeling there are resources for them,” Petocz is quoted as saying in the Times article by Elizabeth A. Harris and Alexandra Alter. Petocz told the reporters that books that portray heterosexual romances are rarely challenged. “I felt it was very discriminatory.” (in fact, they had never been challenged in Flagler until Woolbright, who does not have children in schools but is running for re-election, filed her challenge: the last time a book was challenged in Flagler County schools goes back almost a decade and a half, when the parent of a student at Indian Trails Middle School was disturbed by drug themes in a Walter Dean Myers book. The challenge did not go further than the school, and the book stayed on the shelves.)
The Times article confirms Petocz ‘s observations: the American Library Association received reports of some 330 book challenges last fall, an “unprecedented” number especially as each report generally included more than one title, and some included lists. The challenges are overwhelmingly against anti-racist and LGBTQ-themed books, though there are also recurring instances of liberal challenges to To Kill a Mockingbird or Of Mice and Men.
“It’s a pretty startling phenomenon here in the United States to see book bans back in style, to see efforts to press criminal charges against school librarians,” Suzanne Nossel, the chief executive of the free-speech organization PEN America, is quoted as saying in the article. Charges have so far failed to stick, as was the case in Flagler after Woolbright filed the criminal complaint that specifically named the superintendent. The Flagler County Sheriff’s Office, mirroring decisions elsewhere, found no merit to the complaint and redirected the issue to the school board.
The Times article places Flagler County’s skid toward censorship in the broader political context of a nation in the grips of a reaction against less restrictive attitudes and conversations about subjects–and people–previously repressed, or forced to remain invisible or unfree to express themselves.
“In the United States, we’re heading down a dangerous road of intolerance and banning of information,” Petocz said today. “Not only in the sector of books, as recently in Florida both SB 148 and HB 1557 passed committee. These bills seek to prevent the teachings of our nation’s discriminatory history or any discussion regarding LGBTQIA+ individuals and sexual orientation. Republican legislatures are attempting to silence already marginalized voices. Locally, we can see this with the book ban perpetuated by Jill Woolbright. It’s vital to speak out against this suppression of ideas and attempts to police education. Young people are rallying together to fix this broken world and push back, one step at a time.”
The online version of the Times article features two pictures of Petocz, including the leading picture atop the article. It shows him holding two signs used at the November protest, including the one fellow-student Alysa Vidal is holding in the picture above.
Petocz has been building a local following since last year among students, faculty and beyond, and has been a recurring contributor of opinion articles on FlaglerLive. The Times article unsurprisingly has been drawing a stream of congratulatory links on his Facebook page all day.
“Seeing a Palm Coast teenager as part of a page one story in the NYT gives me hope for the future,” Abbey Cooke, likely the most outspoken teacher in the district, told FlaglerLive today. (“Watching you in front of the board gave me the courage to speak out two years ago!” Petocz told Cooke in a Facebook message today.)
“Jack,” Cooke continued, “is not simply part of a movement to take this country back, but he is a leader in that movement. I am confident that with Jack helping lead the way, the youth of our nation can bring back kindness, empathy, and sensibility.” Regarding the ripples even of protest movements, Cooke added: “Protesting matters because even though at first it may seem like it’s pointless at first, it will spread. It may start as five protestors holding signs, but turn into a NYT story. Every revolution began with a protestor.” (On Petocz’s Facebook page, Cooke was more gleeful: “Omgggggggg. I know him!”)
“Our kids are doing some pretty amazing things,” Kristin Dunham wrote on his page, also linking to the article.