Last Updated: 3:33 p.m.
Hundreds of students at Flagler Palm Coast High School and Matanzas High School staged a walkout this morning to protest bills nearing passage in the Legislature that would silence educators’ freedom to discuss certain topics, including gender identity, sexual orientation and certain anti-racism themes. One of the bills, a particular focus of today’s student protest, has been dubbed “Don’t Say Gay” by its opponents, and cleared the House last week.
Some 200 students protested in a walkout around the track at Matanzas, and more than twice that number did at FPC.
“Say gay! Say Gay! Say Gay!,” the FPC students chanted in answer this morning as they gathered around Jack Petocz, a junior at the school who organized the protest in spite of threats of being suspended, and spearheaded about 20 like it across the state.
Hours later, the school administration or the district made good on their threats: Petocz was suspended–or was “administratively excused,” in the school board attorney’s words, as the matter is investigated. His formal suspension, should there be one, would come later, and would in these circumstances be one to three days, according to the school board attorney.
“I’m going to fight this,” Petocz said.
There was also the report of at least one confrontation at FPC between a student supporting the walkout and students who yelled slurs at her and allegedly choked her. The district became aware of the incident around 2 p.m. and was pulling surveillance video in that regard. The Sheriff’s Office said at 3:30 p.m. Thursday that the call was still active, meaning that the agency was conducting an investigation, and that it was ongoing. At Matanzas, a few people stood outside the school with a large cross.
Students had marched around the school’s track, waving pride flags Petocz distributed after being warned not to do so by the school administration, stood and chanted between remarks by Petocz, who stood on a track bench and spoke through a megaphone that he said administrators also attempted to take away earlier, then walked back to class, after Principal Greg Schwarz twice told Petocz to end the speech and send students back.
“It was beyond my wildest expectations,” Petocz said in an interview afterward, but before he learned of his suspension. “There was 500 Kids plus there, easy. There were so many kids with signs, with pride flags, with meaningful messages and ready to stand up to Governor DeSantis and the Florida GOP and I was just so incredibly surprised, you know, inspired and just amazed as I was walking towards the stadium and I was seeing that flood of students. Once we got there, there was some hiccups as well.”
Not just there. Petocz decided to organize the protest last week immediately after the House passed House Bill 1557, posting plans on his Twitter feed and sending out electronic fliers on Feb. 24, along with an email to the school administration laying out his plan–that the plan was for a peaceful, internal protest free of outside security threats. “And I said, this is what we’re doing would love your support on this,” he said.
Schwarz called him to his office on Monday. “He was saying that he was supportive of everything that we were doing,” Petocz said, “that we have the right to stand for this and that, like, let us just know how we can support you on this.” Schwartz–who did not return a call or text–told Petocz that he’d talked to the district “and everything was supportive.”
The next morning, it all changed. Petocz was again called to the office, away from his SAT preparation class, and handed a school policy “banning the use of our facilities for political campaigns and events.” Petocz argued that the policy was geared toward community members, not students, but was told the walkout could not be staged because of it. (See: “A Parent’s Counsel to FPC Principal Greg Schwartz: Accommodate LGBTQ Students, Don’t Suspend Them.”)
“‘We’ve communicated with school board personnel and this cannot occur,'” was the message Petocz says Schwartz conveyed, “and I was basically threatened with suspension that they said there could be discipline, and there could be long term suspension. I really pushed back on him on this because I was upset and this was directly after Janet McDonald came to our school, and he was [walking] around with her so I don’t know if she had anything to do with it. But that’s what I kind of thought inferred what had occurred.” McDonald is one of two school board members who, with Jill Woolbright, has aggressively pushed back or opposed LGBTQ initiatives and sought to have library books banned based on LGBTQ and anti-racism themes. McDonald had also silenced Petocz at a school board meeting in 2020 when he began to criticize her.
An email Superintendent Cathy Mittelstadt sent the five school board members early this morning shows she had been involved in talks and measures surrounding the walkouts. She cited Board Policy 522, which states that “Any student who participates in a boycott, walkout, sit-in, strike, or any similar disruptive action which interferes with an orderly operation of the school shall be deemed guilty of serious misconduct and shall be subject to suspension or dismissal from school.” But she then added: “That being said, in the past our school administrators have successfully worked with students who have held walkouts to take part in a peaceful protest, while not interfering with the learning environment of students who do not wish to participate. That is the same in this case. District administrators have worked this week with the principals at both high schools to establish a plan of action to allow for the student protest, while not disrupting other students who prefer to not take part. Additionally, they must take into account the safety of those students who do participate.”
Mittlestadt wrote that “A small block of time has been set aside for students on both high school campuses to take part in their planned protest.” Students who would exceed that time would then possibly face penalties. Teachers, she said, were “contractually obligated to be in the classroom during instructional time.” (The email was issued at 4:27 a.m.)
Petocz had initially wanted to stage the walkout in the school’s main courtyard between buildings. Schwartz opposed that, too. The two finally came to an agreement, however: the walkout would be allowed on the school’s track, would last 15 minutes, starting during a class change, and minimize disruptions to the school day.
This morning Scwartz came to Petocz’s class at about 8:30, speaking his support again–within the restrictions agreed. Petocz told him of the flags, an indication that “our identities are valid.” Schwartz was “very disagreeable” about that, saying it was “throwing a wrench” into the agreed-upon plans. Schwartz absented himself to call the superintendent and returned 30 minutes later: no flags allowed. Petocz decided not to listen to him, “because he was saying some things that were irrational in my mind.”
“I can appreciate that may have bene his perception,” Kristry Gavin, the school board attorney, said, “however, that has been our statement and it has not wavered. I’m sorry he believes it’s irrational, that he should be permitted to have the gay pride flag, the rainbow flag or whatever, but when it carries a connotation of political a statement, it’s no longer” permissible. The prohibition on “political flags” isn’t as arbitrary as the definition of what constitutes a political flag: it is the same prohibition that applies, for example, to the confederate flag or the Gadsden flag, though in effect the prohibition equates symbols of hate, such as the confederate flag, with symbols of inclusion, such as the pride flag.
Petocz was suspended after the protest because he distributed pride flags after being told not to.
McDonald was at FPC again today, watching the protest unfold. Woolbright was at Matanzas High School.
School Board Chairman Trevor Tucker, however, knew nothing of it and had not–does not–check social media (as McDonald claims he does not, either). Tucker said it was an “operational issue” that does not involve board members. (The board members were informed of the protests in an email before the protests took place. Gavin said some board members may have read the email, others not.)
“Hopefully everything went well, hopefully it was safe,” Tucker said, . “I don’t know much about it–I don’t know anything about it. I’ve been working all morning.” Tucker said he’d have preferred that the protest be organized before or after school to avoid interference with the school day. “You don’t want that to happen all the time,” he said.
“Hopefully whoever is organizing this would work with the administration because we’re there to educate. Schools should not be a political ground.”
Petocz indisputably worked with the administration, and had an agreement with Schwartz, but Schwartz just as clearly appears to have come under pressure from the administration–itself under pressure, by all appearances, from a single school board member, either to constrain the protest or take measures against Petocz.
McDonald, he said, “was standing by the gate as students were funneling in just looking on disapprovingly. But they had staff there telling students not to bring in pride flags and they couldn’t have pride flags, and essentially trying to confiscate them.” There were reports from Matanzas that the principal there, Jeff Reaves, also sought to confiscate flags. “And so I started chanting on my megaphone, ‘Don’t listen to them, don’t listen to them,'” Petocz continued, “keep your pride flags, don’t let them take them away. So I was just trying to spread the message to students you know, don’t listen to these people trying to take away your right to protest and your right to identify yourself.”
Support for the protest was not from students alone. “I commend the students who want to stand up for their rights and the rights of others,” a faculty member said, requesting anonymity (fear of retaliation is rife in the district). “HB 1557 has the potential to cause harm to our children both by outing students to their parents before they are ready and by making discussion of gender identity and sexual orientation impossible in younger grades. At first, one may think there isn’t a problem with this prohibition due to the grade level restrictions. However, I can think of many examples where this isolates a child. A simple example: if you have a student with two moms in a class of first grade students but cannot read a picture book about a character with two moms, you are denying that child’s representation. None of the families they see in books will look like their family. As to students being outed to their families before they are ready at any age, I look to the high suicide rates among LGBTQ+ youth. If we take away all the safe places, what will the future look like? So, although I understand and support the schools following the board policies, I also fully support the students in their pursuit of justice. I would encourage them to work with officials and within existing policies whenever possible while continuing to stand up for LGBTQ+ rights.”
Another faculty member, encouraging cooperation between protesters and the school administration, was equally supportive. “From Schwartz’s perspective and an institution with 3000 people on any given day, I understand his concerns and his perspective,” the faculty member said. But there was disappointment in Schwartz’s subsequent handling of the walkout itself, when he was not seen as having met Petocz quite halfway, then outright shock at the suspension.
Pro-Education Voter says
Pressure from a single Board Member. Color me shocked. Back off Janet.
WE BACK JACK!
As a 60’s “radical” I fully support the non-violent protest the students initiated. Are they to sit back and be puppets or are they to use their minds to assess issues of great importance to them in their current world and have the bravery to pursue civil disobedience. Maybe if they wore red hats and ransacked the Principal’s office they wouldn’t have gotten so much pushback.
I’m all for students “thinking”. But when a 16 or 17 year old think they’re gonna tell me how and what kids ages 5-8 should learn? I hear ya but this isn’t their fight to fight.
The dude says
Good job kids!
Now… as you turn 18, please remember that the ultimate form of protest is your votes. Use them well, unlike the generations before you.
It will always be easier to win at the ballot boxes, than win via mass protests.
And apply for the selective service. With World War 3 only one mistake away, they might want to prepare what their future may hold. Trade in their flag for an army uniform.
Just Saying says
Your implication (sarcastically) that they would be afraid to enlist is invalid.
If you think there are not now, nor ever were, any gay/bi/ETC members of the armed forces you are gravely wrong. Most stay in the closet out of fear, but one comes to mind that did not stay closeted: Pete Buttigieg, a former Navy Lieutenant (Intelligence Officer), current US Secretary of Transportation, graduate of Harvard, Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University. Being gay does not make you afraid of military service. It only makes you uncomfortable around homophobes. My husband served 26 years and we personally knew people active duty who were discretely serving and were damned good at what they did.
You should not assume. My point was no one cares what your sexual or social preferences are when the bullets are flying. PERIOD
Let’s not talk about Pete. When Dominos pizza gives a grant to fix the roadways, you maybe in over your head.https://www.washingtonexaminer.com/news/biden-transportation-buttigieg-help-pizza-chain-fix-potholes-mayor We both know why he is the Secretary of Transportation, it’s not because of his vast knowledge of transportation.
N Roy says
I agree! Pete is a Terrible Sec of Transportation and should RESIGN! His being Gay has nothing to do with his lack of leadership skills! His short Navy career did NOT give him any experience in Transportation Management!
He was t mayor of a medium sized Midwestern city, dolt! Of course he knows about transportation.
Good for Jack and those Students that walked out! Tomorrows leaders today! My bigger question is why is a Board member allowed to just show up anytime at the school and possibly dictate to the Principal what should be happening in his school? Also when did it become a crime to hand out flags? Keep going kids, the future is yours!
All Americans should be allowed to protest peacefully! Period!
Richard Smith says
So glad my kids are no longer in school.
How unfortunate you had kids at all.
Hopefully myopia isn’t hereditary.
Richard Smith says
Yap u got all the answers. My kids are grown and enjoying there lives. Had to Google myopia. You must be an intelligent person NOT…..
So then why are you commenting…. go to work dude
Hey Dick Smith, this was a peaceful protest. These kids should be commended for going against their rights the dystopian state is trying to impose.
Richard Smith says
You ALMOST hurt my feeling lol…
Old Guy says
Reminds me of a nationwide event in the early 1970’s when students and faculty in high schools and colleges wore black armbands to protest the war in Vietnam. Next time Jack should give out red hats with pride flags embroidered on them.
Bailey’s Mom says
Great job students, way to hold a peaceful protest to support equal rights for All.
Now it’s time to get registered and VOTE. Your time is now, continue to show up, stand up, and speak up for what is right!
WAY TO GO FPC STUDENTS IT IS CALLED FREEDOM OF SPEECH, DON’T LET DEATHSANTIS TRY AND BULLY YOU AS HE IS THE STATE OF FLORIDA HE IS A LITTLE MAN WANT TO BE DICTATOR AND MAKING HIMSELF LOOK LIKE A FOOL EACH AND EVERY DAY.
Good on you guys. Make “good trouble” kids. You are the future. There is no room for hate. We all bleed the same.
Carol Fisher says
So sad to read that high school students cannot peacefully protest! In the late 60s, I organized a sit-in at my high school. My issue was so insignificant compared to this MAJOR issue. We just wanted girls to be allowed to wear pants to school, instead of limiting us to dresses or skirts. Luckily we had school board members and teachers on our side, and we eventually won. And I was not suspended from school! Although we could not wear jeans, legally. (I did wear denim overalls for the official year book photo of the National Honor Society, which I was president of my senior year.) The administration didn’t catch that until it was too late!
Best wishes to Jack Petocz.
so jack gets suspended while the boys who strangled a girl and the kid who harassed and swung on people walk away scot free? not to mention that the latter’s victim was the one who was reprehended, and the aggressor was never taken in. where’s the suspension of the students who brought in trump flags? the students who wear confederate flags? the suspension of the countless kids who harassed queer students today?
Go for it Kids!! The only ones that should be embarrassed are the school administrators disallowing free speech!! Flagler is a biased and ‘sheltered” Republican county. They can only keep getting away with so much until the bubble bursts, and you can bet, it eventually will. The “good ole boy” stupidity is going to go away; and when it does, watch them run back into the hills.
Bill C says
If you’re suffering so much from queer fear, maybe you’re in the closet yourself.
Deborah Coffey says
Wear your suspension as a badge of honor, Jack. Lots of us out here are really proud of what you are accomplishing.
Ben Hogarth says
Jesus… I hope the FPC Administration would call me directly. I’d like to discuss exactly what constitutes “political campaigns or events.” I’m not sure which legal counsel is advising, but “protected class” first amendment activities are NOT something you can prohibit unless they are disruptive to the general government business. And there are all sorts of fine litmus test measurements for that grey area.
Unless any of these kids were campaigning for a political candidate or were one themselves (they can’t be, they’re under age) – it’s not going to meet the definition of a political campaign or event.
I can’t believe I have to disclose this to adults. I can’t believe this isn’t common knowledge.
I can’t believe this is America.
Catherine J says
So proud of the peaceful student protest today. Keep standing up to injustice and inequality everywhere!
So proud of these young adults! They remind this old fart that changes can be made if the people speak out. We had our days trying to get Nixon to honor his pledge to get out of Vietnam. I can only hope that I live long enough to see this new generation of Americans become the majority, to see them exercise the right to vote and to see them become our elected officials.
Art Schwartz says
Putin is alive and well in Flagler County.
Get your facts straight, the girl wasn’t strangled, she was told to give the trump flag back to the kid whose hands she ripped it out of.
multiple witness accounts and video proof say otherwise.
Say Gay 😘 says
Suspend School Board member Janet McDonald.
She is the Putin of Palm Coast
Gay Ally here 💯
Gay. Gay. Gay. Gay. Gay. Gay. Gay. Gay. Gay. Gay. Gay. Gay. Gay. Gay.
yo boi says
imma suspend you
What Else Is New says
How sad. I am heartsick to learn of the spineless administration who copped out on Jack. Bad Janet gets in the picture egging on the principal, Jack gets sacked, and all is well with the exception of the kid who choked a peaceful protester. You can bet the chocker won’t be sacked. Freedom? With freedom comes responsibility. Those students were responsibly and peacefully protesting a wrong done by the autocratic Florida Legislature promoted by a Governor who has lost his sense of decency.
We started out with Adam & Eve, not Adam & Steve. Our country is doomed, the Russians don’t play patty cake…
Florida Voter says
The whole “Adam & Eve, not Adam & Steve” preps me for someone quoting Gen 1:27 “… God he created them; male and female he created them.” This ignores the 1 in (1000 to 5000 depending on the study) individuals who are born both “male and female,” (I’m speaking only of people born with “ambiguous genitalia”). The “Adam & Eve” comment excludes those individuals. Since I doubt you are saying they weren’t created by God, please consider what this legislation is saying to those students.
BTW: Florida supposedly has about 2.7 million students. This places the number of students that I referenced above at well over 500 (very conservatively, actually 540-2700, and more if you start including parents and other family). God was willing to spare Sodom and Gomorrah for 10 people.
You are a Leader and I loved hearing you speak on Nat’l TV.
Keep going…! You are an inspiration!
Edith Campins says
Because not saying GAY is going to make gay people disappear, because not teaching the facts about slavery is going to make it less real, these right wing extremists think they can change the world into something it never was to begin with. I commend this your man’s courage. Shame on the school administration. What next? Another Kent State?
It saddens me to see how messed up this generation is. Experimented on with constant social media and bad influence. I heard Joe Biden even mention it in the SOTU. Let them wave their flags, or dress crazy, they have severe mental problems from these phones
People of the LGBTQ community existed before smartphones existed…. How about don’t generalize. You’re probably an old bitter person anyways
Hope DeathSantis has read these posts because he sure lost more votes and will continue to because he is now a Governor and a want to be President of Discrimination. He wants Trumps cult base to vote for him thinking that will get him elected and with all his education hasn’t realized all the votes he is losing. Very pathetic person that doesn’t know how to work for all the people and not just the ones he has chosen to. He needs to give up find another profession.
How sad that these young people have nothing better to do! The world is collapsing, people are starving, children are being trafficked and abused, inflation is deeply hurting families, and the list goes on and on. My message…GO HELP someone who really needs it and stop wasting time! No one cares who you want to have sex with! There are way bigger problems! This generation is in a world of hurt.
Apparently your Governor is concerned who has sex with whom, otherwise he would not have put legislature through to disregard these folks from existing!!
That’s where you’re mistaken. This issue is a big deal to these kids and politicians most certainly do care or they would not be protesting. There was an article here not too long ago about a child who was brutally beaten by their father because he wore makeup. These kids are standing up for what they believe in and being punished for exercising their first amendment rights.
Which would also constitute as child abuse, which you said was a problem.
If no one cared then it wouldn’t be such a problem and bills would not have been put in place. Obviously this is a problem. There’s only so much high school kids in the state of Florida can actually do seeing as how our voices are barely heard as is. Not saying we’re not capable, but the state of Florida is going to do what they want regardless. And there are more factors in play for that.
Peaches McGee says
Sadly, the Flagler County School System is the forefront of the new oppression.
What a wonderful sight to see when I watched the video of the large, 500+ students rallying together in support of LGBT students and shouting “SAY GAY!” over and over again in defiance of the homophobic legislation that is taking our state backwards once again. Not only backwards, but it is a real danger to those who are already targeted and bullied due to their sexual orientation. Flagler Palm Coast school officials and the school board had better wake up and START supporting all students and quit being mouthpieces for the bigoted and homophobic morons who are the really the dregs of our society, not these courageous and inspiring school students sticking up for their own! The “adults” should be ashamed of themselves and could learn a lot from these teens.
David J Castello says
Proud of these kids who protested. And it sounds like Janet McDonald desperately needs to join the 21st century.
David Gee says
This is one of the few times since I relocated to Flagler County that I can say I’m proud to live here. I am usually appalled at the political atmosphere in this Trump County, but Jack and students at FPC have made me proud. Good for you. Don’t give up, please. It does get better.