In response to one parent’s complaint about civil rights era-inspired posters by students, and to the the parent’s son vandalizing posters he found offensive at Flagler Palm Coast High School, School Board member Christy Chong has rallied to the side of the parent and the student and is seeking to revisit policies that address the display of student work in school hallways.
Board members Will Furry and Sally Hunt are joining Chong in seeking that discussion. Chong did not seem concerned with the vandalism of student work, or that the displays were a required part of their course of study.
It is the latest example of a a school board reassessing time-tested and long-standing academic practices through culture-war litmus tests. The sharp shift, which led to the board’s firing of the superintendent last month, appears to have little to no connection to classroom goals. Rather, echoing similar shifts at the state Board of Education and the legislature, it ties into a reframing of classrooms and schools on ideological grounds, leaving administrators and faculty reeling from surprises such as the one Chong sprang on the board at the end of a workshop Tuesday.
Chong, who two months ago wanted a “safe space” sign removed from a classroom at Matanzas High, said she wanted to revisit the policy that controls advertising in schools. “I wanted to look at updating and clarifying policy 904,” she said. “I’ve had a lot of parents reaching out about signs that are in school, posters and that sort of thing, and what’s allowed.”
Actually, one parent emailed her on April 25 regarding one incident at Flagler Palm Coast High School. It had nothing to do with advertising. It had to do with posters produced by students as part of their history course work. The posters were displayed in hallways, as teachers routinely display student work in most schools in the district, in the state, and in the country.
Bobby Bossardet, the principal at FPC, had told Chong, as he’d told the teacher responsible for the posters, that “the project was appropriate for the US history class that he teaches.”
The posters were developed as part of a unit on civil rights. The assignment was to focus on one aspect of civil rights history, leaving it to each student to decide for himself, herself or themselves, what to illustrate. Some chose women’s rights. Some chose Black rights. Some chose Chicano rights (“we will not be intimidated”). Some chose LGBTQ rights, and some the anti-war movement. All themes had their roots in the civil rights era, which paralleled the Vietnam War.
The parent’s son was not happy with the LGBTQ posters. He vandalized them, a detail that appeared not to bother Chong: she made no issue of that.
The student was called into the dean’s office. His parents were contacted and he was given a warning, in accordance with the school’s disciplinary matrix. Restitution is part of the disciplinary process too, but since the materials’ value in dollars was low, it could not be applied. (Last year, in contrast, students were suspended from Flagler Palm Coast High School for three days merely for waving pride flags.)
The student’s mother emailed Chong, telling her she was “reaching out as a mom, resident, fellow christian, and a supporter of you both,” referring as well to Will Furry. (She did not write the three other members of the school board, who are also moms and residents, and no less Christian, if not flauntingly so).
“My son comes home daily feeling offended by the LGBTQ posters that are posted up throughout the Hallways at FPC,” the parent wrote, with considerable exaggeration. If FPC is a small city, the posters occupied parts of a couple of streets, if that much, in otherwise cinder block-bare wall space.
“I am not sure if there’s anything we can do about this, but it’s upsetting and also influencing my 14 year old daughter. She came to me a few months ago and told me she might be gay and seemed proud as if she was finally accepted into a group of students who felt ‘Love is Love.'”
One of the posters in question included the phrase “Love is Love.” It isn’t clear how or why the words are offensive. It lists in tiny print all possibilities, with “straight” and “aromantic” at the top, followed by “non-binary,” “asexual,” and so on.
“Today I received a call from the Dean at FPC that my son had taken matters into his own hands and removed some of the LGBTQ posters and threw them into the Toilet,” the parent wrote. “(My son claimed he threw them next to the toilet but I have not confirmed that) He said he just wants to go to school without seeing what he finds offensive posters everywhere.” The parent acknowledged that what her son did was wrong, but said he was “frustrated and I think having his little sister tell him she may be gay did not help the situation.”
The dean informed the parent that her son had carried out an act of vandalism, but that “he would get my son in contact with Admin where he can have his voice heard in regards to this content.”
She asked Chong whether “anything can be done in regards to these posters or is this the new normal we have to accept and endure in our society?” Some of the images she attached as examples of offensive posters included lines like “Love is never wrong,” “no more war,” “War’s a bummer dude,” and “Peace Love Hippies,” all of which, like repeated drawings of VW buses, radiated Vietnam War-era chants of the civil rights movement. Several posters paid tribute to the women’s and environmental movements, some to a landmark Fourth Amendment decision, and one to disabilities.
Less than an hour after receiving the email, Chong, bypassing the superintendent, emailed Bossardet, the principal at FPC, asking him to “look into this.” (Elected officials are generally required not to meddle in administrative, operation matters and to channel their concerns through their employee: the superintendent. They do not have any more authority over a principal or a teacher than does a private citizen.) Chong told Bossardet she believed the display of posters was “against school board policy 904.”
It is not. Policy 904 controls advertising in school only–what may or may not be advertised, including a specific list of eight prohibitions, from slanderous or libelous advertising to advertising of tobacco and alcohol, illegal drugs, political advertising, “Advertising that is harassing speech or expression sufficiently severe and pervasive as to create a hostile learning environment,” and so on. (See the full policy, last revised in 2019, here.) It has nothing to do with student’s work or curricular-aligned displays.
After meeting with the U.S. History teacher, Bossardet replied with two pages of single-spaced explanations. He cited five specific Florida standards that teachers must meet within the parameters of that class’ curriculum. “The students,” the principal wrote, ” are asked to develop social activist posters. The lesson focuses on understanding the rise and continuing international influence of the United States as a world leader and the impact of contemporary social and political movements on American life,” whether it has to do with feminism, the environmental movement, or historical movements related to Latino, American-Indian, and countercultural issues, among others.
The students pick a social movement of their choice and design a poster with supporting materials. The teacher–a Navy veteran who’s been teaching at FPC since 2016– “explained that several students asked him if they could pick the gay liberation movement.” Bossardet explained to Chong that the movement unfolded in the 1960s and 70s. “Because the topic was aligned with the standard and theme, the teacher agreed.”
The gay-liberation movement is ingrained in the civil rights era, with the Stonewall Uprising of 1969 its turning point as gays and lesbians fought back against what had been routine and brutal police raids against gay bars in Manhattan. “The events that would unfold over the next six days would fundamentally change the discourse surrounding LGBTQ+ activism in the United States,” a summary by the U.S. Library of Congress states.
Bossardet was fully behind his teacher, telling him that his project “was aligned to the appropriate standards outlined in the course description.” He went further to address Chong’s concern: “Moving forward,” Bossardet wrote the board member, “we are asking all teachers at FPC to post the topics of the assignments, along with the appropriate standards the assignment covers. I explained my concern for having any of the work being displayed in our halls for extended periods of times, could be perceived as decor or advertisement.” For example, if a poster were to stay up much longer than the unit that the teaching unit that generated it, it could take on a different projection.
“Our expectation moving forward is that the work displayed in our hallways is expected to be relevant to what they are currently covering, or just completed, in the class at the time and should be rotated accordingly,” Bossardet wrote Chong.
She agreed with the rotation idea and conceded the purpose of the work. “These posters do cover current events,” she wrote Bossardet last Monday, “but could also make some students uncomfortable if displayed for extended periods of time as they support different agendas. I may ask the board to update our policy for more clarification.”
The next day, she did.
“What he said to me was that this was part of a school assignment, which I can totally understand,” Chong told her fellow-board members about the posters–never mentioning the vandalism. “But just to use it as an example. Say the kids did an assignment on U.S. presidents. You probably wouldn’t hang Trump and Biden posters in the hallways, you know what I mean?”
“Actually, I think they did,” Board member Colleen Conklin said. “I’m sure they did.”
Board member Will Furry was immediately willing to have the discussion. “It definitely is very vague and it leaves a lot of open interpretation,” he said of Policy 904, which–perhaps unusually for school policies–is neither vague nor leaves much to interpretation.
“Maybe we need a new policy,” Chong said. Furry was supportive of that, too. With Board member Sally Hunt joining Furry and Chong, there was majority agreement to take up the matter at a subsequent workshop. (Hunt did not appear to know the background of the matter. She agreed to discuss the policy on the pretense that she’s willing to reconsider any policy in principle.)
Chong an Furry are not acting in a vacuum, but as part of a growing trend pushing restrictions on what teachers may post or say in their classrooms, specifically regarding LGBTQ-themed materials: The state Board of Education’s K-12 rule prohibiting “classroom instruction to students in grades 4 through 12 on sexual orientation or gender identity” unless it’s required by academic standards or health class (from which parents may opt out their children), or the just-voted bill in the Florida legislature prohibiting so much as asking a student‘s preferred pronouns, at least in grades K through 8.