With some of its members still smarting from the “Don’t Say Gay” student walkouts at Matanzas and Flagler Palm Coast High School last month, the Flagler County School Board agreed to clarify a policy addressing boycotts and walkouts, both to preserve the rights of students to free expression and to protect school functions from disruption.
Notably, there will be no student language banning walkouts or demonstrations.
The student-led demonstrations at the two high schools on March 3 protested a just-enacted new law legislators passed earlier this year that forbids discussions of gender identity in early grades and gives parents the right to sue schools and districts if they feel discussion topics in any grades transgress certain bounds. Because the law seeks to silence discussions of such things as transgender or gay identities, its opponents dubbed it the “Don’t Say Gay” law.
Students at the two local high schools organized brief, 15-minute walkouts on each campus to protest. The walkouts took place with the two school administrations’ cooperation and consent, and unfolded on the sports tracks at the two campuses, starting during a class change. They were voluntary, drawing several hundred students each, but did not interfere with classroom instruction for those who chose not to take part. (The student organizer at FPC was suspended for defying an order not to distribute gay-pride flags at the march. He was also penalized with a permanent mark on his record, keeping him from leading certain clubs in the future.)
In that sense, the walkouts matched standard policy language that grants students the right to exercise their “constitutionally guaranteed right to assemble,” while not infringing on “the right of others” or interfere with the “operation of the schools.”
The walkouts were similar to walkouts organized in the wake of the school massacre in Parkland, in South Florida, in 2018 and in the aftermath of the murder of George Floy by a police officer in Minnesota. Those walkouts drew no objections from school board members, including local board members.
The difference with last month’s walkouts, which were monitored by School Board member Janet McDonald at Flagler Palm Coast High School and Jill Woolbright at Matanzas High School, is that those two school board members, whose ideology aligns with the hard right, were opposed to the motivation behind the walkouts. They have ridiculed students’ understanding (or alleged lack of understanding) of the legislation in question. McDonald has criticized the walkout as having nothing to do with education. But she also holds a personal animus against Jack Petocz, the student leader who organized the protests, shutting him down during public comment at a school board meeting in 2020. Woolbright has lambasted the administration for a lack of information about the demonstrations before they happened.
Superintendent Cathy Mittlestadt pushed back, terming the administration’s handling of the demonstrations proper and within policy, since they were operational matters. School board members, in other words, were inappropriately interfering in operational matters. Board members may not do so, their role being limited to policy. (See: “Superintendent Sharply Fends Off 2 School Board Members 2nd Guessing Handling of ‘Don’t Say Gay’ Walkouts.”
“So let’s be careful, board,” Mittlestadt told the two board members at a meeting a month ago, “because to discuss operationally how we handled that, managed the situation, I don’t know that that’s a public conversation.” But at Woolbright’s and McDonald’s insistence, and with Chairman Trevor Tucker’s consent, the board agreed to discuss the student walk-out policy–but not rehash the March 3 walk-outs.
That was the intended focus of the discussion at Tuesday’s workshop. Four board members respected the restriction–insisted on by Tucker–that the March 3 walkout not be discussed. McDonald did not. She referred to it at least half a dozen times, framing her arguments around it, and because of it, repeatedly citing it as the reason why the policy should be revised.
That language is found in policies modeled after wording prepared by Neola, the organization formerly known as the North East Ohio Learning Associates, a national non-profit that advises districts on policies and procedures. Alachua County is among the Florida districts whose student protest policy mirrors the language. Flagler County School Board members at a workshop on on Tuesday agreed to essentially copy Alachua’s policy.
The board’s current policy is a one-liner: “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.”
School Board attorney Kristy Gavin summarized the wording of various related policies from around the state–Alachua, Miami Dade, Citrus, and Neola’s position on the subject. “What you will find is Neola is basically saying that they recognize that students do not leave their constitutional rights at the door, that they get to take them into the school,” Gavin said.
In 2018, the National School Board Association issued a white paper addressing best practices with student walkouts. “As you know, that’s when we started seeing a lot of demonstrations taking place nationwide, because students were not okay with what happened on their campus in Parkland,” Gavin said, “and they wanted to take part in demonstrations.”
The white paper balanced students’ rights with schools’ responsibilities, specifying how schools could handle a demonstration–“how you could go about managing it, how a school district would could go about ensuring that students’ constitutional rights are still being protected, and that if you’re going to deny a demonstration,” Gavin said, “or if you’re going to delegate the demonstration to be another way, that you’re not doing it because you don’t like what they’re wanting to say. When you start getting involved in ‘I don’t agree with your statements and the topics,’ then you start getting into a little bit of a gray area of getting in trouble. Of course, if they’re wanting to talk about drugs, alcohol or those kinds of things, well, now you can say no, we’re not going to go in that direction of how maybe they should be able to smoke marijuana.”
Students may be deemed guilty of violating Flagler’s policy and face disciplinary action if their action “interferes with an orderly operation of the school.” Gavin said “it’s very subjective.”
McDonald, whose judgments tend to be more subjective than those of her colleagues, immediately objected. “I don’t think so,” she said. “Do we need to change the word to regular operations?” though if “regular operations” were not to be disrupted, then that would preclude pep rallies, celebrations of any sort, various assemblies and numerous other interruptions of the school day that wouldn’t rank as “disruptions,” but that would rank as interfering with “regular” operations: those events are by nature irregular. The difference, for McDonald, is that those disruptions are instructive, while the March 3 walkout, in her view, was not.
Board member Colleen Conklin leaned on the side of students’ rights, because “no matter what we do, we’re not going to be able to eliminate the whole notion that students are not going to deal with controversial issues,” she said, all the while preserving schools’ authority to discipline violations.
“The bottom line that we have is that boycotts and walkouts are disruptive to educational purposes. Our responsibility as an educational institution is for instruction. And my issue with what happened was it was facilitated rather than instructed,” McDonald said, indirectly blaming the schools’ administration and the superintendent. The walkouts were, in fact, negotiated in advance between the organizer and the principal at FPC, with input from the superintendent–in accordance with previous procedures and the district’s current operational authority. McDonald had wanted the walkouts forbidden.
“Controversy was announced, conversation about educational opportunity was offered and denied and rejected,” McDonald claimed, falsely, as Conklin pointed out. “A walkout does nothing except make a media nonsense. And that accomplishes nothing but bad PR,” McDonald said, again getting into form and content of the demonstration itself: she didn’t like the way the “Don’t Say Gay” legislation was portrayed.
McDonald was on a different wavelength than her colleagues’ for much of the discussion.
I don’t understand why this is an issue now,” Conklin said. “We’ve had these issues. We’ve had similar events over the years. Parkland, we had the same thing. So I don’t understand now why this is such a big issue. George Floyd, we had the same thing.”
The difference, McDonald said, was that students knew what they were demonstrating then, but not in the more recent demonstration.
“Look at Alachua,” Board member Cheryl Massaro said. So the board did.
Gavin read the Alachua policy’s conclusion: “students shall not be disturbed during the exercise of their constitutionally guaranteed rights to assemble peaceably and to express ideas and opinions privately provided that such exercise does not infringe on the rights of others and does not interfere with the operation of the school.”
She added that the superintendent would develop administrative procedures for the implementation of the policy, allowing the superintendent to develop procedures for “the reasonable time, place duration manner restrictions” on such demonstrations. The superintendent would then inform the board: “It has been determined through our procedures that have been developed that this school is going to conduct this and this is how it’s going to be handled.”
That’s precisely how the March 3 demonstration were conducted.
Woolbright was on board, up to a point, the current policy being too vague, she said. “So I’m okay with whatever we decide, and I believe that we need to educate our youth and we need to give them a voice. That’s my opinion,” she said. “I don’t believe in saying they’re not allowed period. I believe that they need to be educated. They need to learn but it needs to be done proper with civility and within common laws, and with rules and structured guidelines.” On the other hand, “the second that they go outside those perimeters, we shut it down, or we hold them accountable. We don’t wait to the whole thing’s done for 20 minutes and then go backwards.”
McDonald’s further comments verged on the absurd (“So where in our curriculum do we have sit-ins as a requirement for graduation or walkouts as a required or even a recommended way of instructing?” she asked) but by then the board’s consensus was clear for a rewrite of the policy that essentially means incorporating language from the Alachua version.
Tucker directed the attorney to draft a policy similar to Alachua’s, and moved on.