The Florida high school student who organized a walkout to protest the state’s proposed “parental rights” bill, referred to by critics as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, says he’s been suspended by school administrators, whom he accuses of trying to crack down on the protest and students’ free speech rights.
Jack Petocz, a junior at Flagler Palm Coast High School, in Palm Coast, Florida, organized a walkout not only for his high school but several other walkouts held across the state by students protesting the bill. More than 500 students participated in the walkout at Flagler Palm Coast High alone, waving Pride flags and chanting slogans like “Say gay!”
Following the protest, Petocz said he was called to the principal’s office and told he was “disrespectful” and “openly advocating against staff.” They suspended him until further notice “pending an investigation.”
Petocz says administrators suspended him for bringing and distributing about 200 Pride flags — purchased with his own money — to students to hold during the protest. An hour before the walkout — which had originally been scheduled for noon but was pushed forward to the morning hours — Principal Greg Schwartz pulled him aside and voiced his objections to the flags.
“”He told me I wouldn’t be allowed to [distribute the flags]. He went further to question the intentions of our protest, asking if pride flags were relevant to opposition to the bill,” Petocz said. “I decided to move forward and handed the flags to other student organizers for distribution at the event.”
When students showed up to the school’s stadium for what was supposed to be a 15-minute protest, administrators tried to confiscate some the Pride flags, which prompted Petocz to instruct his schoolmates not to hand the flags over. Administrators also attempted to get students to leave after only seven of their allotted 15 minutes, threatening to discipline them if they didn’t turn in their Pride flags or return to class, The Daytona Beach News-Journal reports.
“Administration is trying to stop us!” Petocz yelled. “We will say gay! We won’t be silent!”
But Jason Wheeler, a spokesman for the Flagler County School District, defended the school’s actions and any consequences that Petocz or others might face for their participation.
“I was there and the students were out of class for at least 20 minutes. Student leaders were told no flags prior to and at the beginning of the event so as to avoid undue safety concerns and campus disruptions,” Wheeler said. “School administration spoke with the event organizer numerous times about the expectations and parameters so that students could take part in a peaceful, safe protest.”
Wheeler told The News-Journal that “[a]ny 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.” He noted that school administrators at FPCHS and at Matanzas High School — which was also green-lighted for a walkout — have previously worked with students to hold protests that don’t interfere with the learning environment.
“That is the same in this case,” Wheeler said. “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. They then have the opportunity to head back to their classrooms. Should students report to class beyond the time allotted, they would then be subject to the Student Code of Conduct,” which means tardy or absent marks on their attendance record.
Teachers are not permitted to participate in any protests, walkouts, or other demonstrations. And Flagler County specifically prohibited press from being at either campus or interviewing students who walked out of class during school hours, claiming reporters’ presence would “create extra pressure on our limited staff and administration on our campuses.”
The bill the students were protesting has previously passed the Florida House of Representatives and is making its way to the Senate, after which Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) is expected to sign it into law. The measure seeks to prohibit school instruction or discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity in “primary grades,” which is understood in Florida to mean kindergarten through third grade. After fourth grade, instruction must be “age-appropriate and developmentally appropriate.”
The bill also requires teachers to inform parents of any decisions or actions taken by teachers or administrators that affect a child’s well-being, their learning plan, and any counseling, guidance, or support services they may require. Parents who are not informed of those decisions are empowered to sue for violating their “parental rights.”
The bill’s sponsor, State Rep. Joe Harding (R-Williston), has frequently said that opponents are misrepresenting the bill, which is about ensuring parents have a say over what their child is being taught and whether it is age-appropriate. He claims that the legislation will not prohibit discussion of LGBTQ-related issues in secondary grades. But critics say that such a promise is hollow and can’t be guaranteed in practice, as teachers and administrators who are wary of being sued — even if they’re not violating the law — will take pre-emptive steps to silence any LGBTQ-related speech, out of fear of offending someone.
Alysa Vidal, a 17-year-old student at Flagler Palm Coast High School who is a member of the LGBTQ community and participated in the school’s walkout, says the nearly two dozen demonstrations around the state — all organized or spearheaded by Petocz — are intended to show lawmakers that youth are opposed to the bill.
“As students, we’re not OK with this,” Vidal said. “It puts so many children at risk for abuse — mental or physical, emotional — that’s a problem.”
Vidal says she’s out to her parents, but worries about the safety of some of her friends and classmates who aren’t yet fully out, adding: “If this bill goes through legislation I just don’t think that it would be very safe for me or my friends.”
Petocz, a frequent critic of the Flagler County School Board who runs a Twitter and Instagram group called Recall FCSB, which is critical of what it believes is “rampant bigotry and corruption within the Flagler County School Board,” has previously clashed with district officials for allegedly discriminating against LGBTQ students, and more recently, for book censorship when it pulled the book All Boys Aren’t Blue, a series of essays focused on author George Johnson’s experiences growing up as a queer Black man, from library shelves.
Other student activists have since started a petition on Change.org demanding that the school rescind the suspension. The petition has since garnered more than 3,800 signatures.
“Principal Schwartz gave explicit permission and approval to the organizers for the walkout to happen, despite cutting our time and changing the location repeatedly,” the petition reads. “Now, after interrupting the walkout and cutting it far shorter than what was previously agreed on, Schwartz has suspended Jack indefinitely ‘pending an investigation.’ FPC admin must have forgotten that students have freedom of speech. This act of retaliation is utterly disgusting. We demand that Jack’s suspension be rescinded immediately and that he receives a personal apology from Principal Schwartz.”
As for Petocz, he seems to be taking his suspension in stride, saying it won’t deter him from speaking out against laws he believes are wrong.
“I’ve never been disciplined before and will continue to advocate on behalf of marginalized communities,” he said.
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