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.