By Jack Petocz
While sitting at my desk at Flagler Palm Coast High School, I witness teachers’ intense dedication, knowledge and exhaustion. Throughout my eleven years attending the Flagler County School District, I have been provided with immense opportunities, from numerous extracurriculars to the loaning of a school-issued laptop. The singular resource that reigns supreme in my mind is access to our teachers and staff.
Devoted to educating with love and passion, our faculty are being demonized and targeted. Already overworked and underpaid during the Covid pandemic, we’re seeing a stark and dangerous shift as teachers and other school employees are vilified by parental fringe groups and GOP legislation. Unfortunately, unsurprisingly, we’re experiencing a mass exodus of these professionals. There are currently 72 job vacancies alone in the Flagler County school district, 11 of them teachers, 4,200 teacher vacancies across Florida, according to the Florida Education Association, a record, a shortage termed “crical” by the Department of Education.
Locally, we’ve seen an attack on our talented support staff, with the attempted banning of four titles from our school libraries. In efforts to diversify content and provide representation of different communities, media specialists have worked diligently to provide inclusive content. Particularly, they’ve amplified marginalized voices such as LGBTQ+ and BIPOC perspectives (Black, Indigenous, People of Color).
Outraged by this progression, a local board member filed a police report over the inclusion of these titles at our local high schools, arbitrarily declaring one “pornographic.” Not only was this an attempt to silence voices of minority groups, but it was a direct attack on our staff. Make no mistake, the filing of the police report sought one end: to intimidate and threaten. Although the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office dismissed the complaint–there was no basis for a criminal investigation–the precedent remained. It was a case of bullying on the basis of bigotry.
In another push to diminish queer voices, the Florida Senate Education Committee passed SB 1834. Coined the “Dont Say Gay” bill by activists, the proposed legislation aims to prohibit “a school district from encouraging classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity in primary grade levels.” This will effectively marginalize the experiences of LGBTQ+ individuals and erase our existence within public school environments. There is no current definition of “primary grade levels” within Florida statute, potentially leading to arbitrary and capricious enforcement. In addition, the law seeks to force staff members to divulge sensitive information to parents, such as sexuality.
This is not fostering a safe environment in our schools. If a teacher is required to out a student, that child may face abuse and incredible stress within their home environment. The law’s protections against that are vague and subjective, and easily misunderstood. According to a study conducted by the ACLU, 40 percent of homeless youth identify within the LGBTQ+ community. In addition, the Trevor Project finds queer youth are “four times more likely to seriously consider suicide.”
Why are we putting students like me in danger? Are our lives not as valuable?
Flagler County hasn’t always been the most inclusive environment growing up, particularly for those identifying as LGBTQ+. In the 4th grade, I had my first encounter with learned hatred and an attempt to ostracize me for my existence. Typically, the boys would play on the kickball field at my elementary school, while the girls stayed on the shaded patio and talked. I would often sit under the shaded patio as well, reading or speaking with them. One day, a boy came up to me and the dreaded question was brought up. In a demeaning tone, he said: “Jack, why are you over here? What, are you, gay?”
Although not to the level of hate I’ve experienced recently, I walked away, upset and with tears in my eyes. The singular word: gay, a monosyllabic word my brain had been taught to think was synonymous with disappointment, lack of masculinity and shame by society. A staff member at the school I’d known for years growing up saw me upset and called me over. I told her what happened. She gave me a big hug, comforted me, told me it was going to be okay. “They have hate in their hearts, you be who you are,” she told me. This conversation stuck with me. It allowed me to be comfortable in my own skin and eventually enabled me to come out in freshman year. These experiences can be the difference between life and death. It is these teachers who make the difference. It is our ability to trust them, it is their ability to speak to us students in confidence, that make this life-saving difference.
That is the trust lawmakers are now severing.
Lastly, we’ve seen attempts to surveil teachers and classroom environments in the state, with HB 1055 passing committee as well. This bill aims to put cameras into classrooms and require our teachers to wear microphones. Not only will this cause an added stress on our talented professionals, but it will further limit fruitful conversations and connections between teachers and students. Our teachers feel they will be examined under a microscope. A single sentence taken out of context could put their abilities in question. Almost certainly, our lessons will become mundane and highly regulated. Why are we not trusting college-educated adults to foster a safe and inclusive learning environment? Would you commit to wearing a microphone and camera in your own profession?
These bills underscore an obsessive fixation: an attempt to police my education by Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Florida GOP. Your actions are causing teachers to fall out of love for the profession and quit. Public education is the most essential tool for upward mobility and progress. Stop attacking it to push your twisted agenda. You’re hurting future generations, and mine.
Jack Petocz, a FlaglerLive contributor, is a junior at Flagler Palm Coast High School who plans on majoring in political science, with a minor in law, in college. He was featured last month in a New York Times article on efforts to counter book bans in schools and was subsequently interviewed on MSNBC, the BBC and other outlets.