A Florida high school student who helped organize student walkouts and protests against the state’s “Don’t Say Gay” law says school officials are retaliating against him by barring him from running for class president.
Jack Petocz, a 17-year-old junior at Flagler Palm Coast High School, was one of the chief organizers of a series of student-led walkouts that occurred throughout the state to protest the bill. School administrators suspended him following the protests, but later reversed their decision after a petition demanding he not be punished gained more than 7,000 signatures.
According to Petocz, after the suspension was reversed, school officials gave him a “verbal agreement” that there would be no marks on his permanent record for organizing the walkouts.
Now, the school is saying that Petocz can’t run for student elections.
“The administration assured me that no further disciplinary action would be taken. A month later, they broke this verbal agreement and placed a level 3 referral on my record,” Petocz wrote in a letter he tweeted. “Now, due to this high level of discipline, I am being prevented from running for my senior class president.”
PEN America, a free speech nonprofit, is working with Petocz to push back against the school’s choice to discipline Petocz for exercising his free speech rights, arguing that the student protests are a form of political expression protected by the First Amendment.
“Jack exercised his right to protest as a citizen, and he led the walkout with the school’s approval,” the non-profit said in a press release. “No student ought to be intimidated or punished by school authorities for their political speech.”
Jason Wheeler, a spokesman for the Flagler County School District declined to comment on Petocz’s situation . He wrote in an email to The Daytona Beach News-Journal that no statement would come from the school until they finished board meetings, which were supposed to be over on Wednesday, and cited the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act as justification for the district’s silence on the matter.
Petocz organized protests against the Republican-backed “Parental Rights in Education” law, dubbed by critics as the “Don’t Say Gay” law. Governor Ron DeSantis signed the bill in late March, which effectively banned discussions of gender expression and sexuality in classrooms from kindergarten to third grade.
After the third grade, discussions on sexuality and gender expression are allegedly allowed but any material broached in class must be “age-appropriate and developmentally appropriate.” However, there have been several instances of high school students being disciplined or reprimanded for engaging in speech that the law’s original sponsors claimed would not be silenced or censored if the bill were passed into law.
For example, at in Winter Park, Florida, Will Larkins, a 17-year-old junior at Winter Park High, was investigated and forcibly reassigned to a new history class after giving a presentation on the Stonewall Uprising to his high school history class. In another instance, Zander Moricz, a graduating senior from Pine View School in Osprey, Florida, was told his graduation speech would be cut off by school officials and his graduation ceremony halted if he mentioned any of his LGBTQ activism.
A third student, from Palmetto, Florida, who remains anonymous but is suing the state over the law, has been preemptively warned about talking about their identity and was rebuffed by school officials after attempting to form a Gender and Sexuality Alliance, or GSA. More recently, students at Lyman High School in Longwood, Florida, were told they couldn’t receive yearbooks until all student-taken photos of a walkout to protest the “Don’t Say Gay” law were covered up by stickers — a decision that was ultimately reversed by the school board for violating students’ freedom of expression.
The “Don’t Say Gay” bill also requires that parents be informed of any choices that could affect a child’s well-being, their learning plan, as well as any counseling, guidance, or support services they may require. This covers outting children to parents. If parents are not told this information, they can sue for violating “parental rights.”
In his letter posted to Twitter, Petocz made it clear that although being blocked from running for class office might be a temporary obstacle, he’s not going to be deterred or cowed into silence by overzealous administrators.
“No matter what, I won’t stop fighting for my community,” he said.
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