Florida teenagers have staged a statewide walkout from their classrooms to protest the state’s proposed parental bill of rights, which would forbid teachers from discussing gender identity and sexual orientation in elementary schools.
High school students in Tampa, Jacksonville, Tallahassee, St. Augustine, Orlando and other cities marched this week waving rainbow flags and chanting “We say gay!” — a reference to the “Don’t Say Gay” nickname that critics have given to the legislation.
The Florida House has approved the Parental Rights in Education bill, and the state Senate is set to consider the legislation in the coming days. Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, is expected to sign if it passes the Senate.
Jack Petocz, a junior at Flagler Palm Coast High School in Flagler County, north of Daytona Beach, was suspended for organizing the rally on social media and distributing LGBTQ pride flags.
The walkout comes as Republican lawmakers in Florida and other states have moved to ban discussions of LGBTQ issues in schools and remove sexually explicit LGBT books from school library shelves.
PEN America, a New York-based free speech advocacy group, reported last month that the Florida bill is one of 15 measures that would ban discussion of gender identity in school that Republican lawmakers had filed in nine states by mid-February.
In a statement Thursday, the organization called upon the school to reverse Mr. Petocz’s suspension, dubbing it “both disproportionate and unconstitutional.”
“As the Supreme Court has ruled, students do not shed their constitutional rights to freedom of expression at the schoolhouse gates,” PEN America said in the statement. “This is especially so considering this was a pre-approved and reportedly peaceful rally.”
“Petocz’s efforts to make his and other students’ voices heard should be lauded, not retaliated against.”
Adam Guillette, president of the conservative media watchdog Accuracy in Media, said the walkout proves the case of parents who have lobbied lawmakers for bills that prevent public schools from making their children aware of sexual issues at younger ages than they wish.
“When your education system is focused more on indoctrination than on education, it’s no surprise that they put out wave after wave of progressive activists,” Mr. Guillette said Friday.
Tamra Farah, executive director of strategic initiatives at the conservative parental rights group Moms for America, said the bill has nothing to do with banning gender identity discussions among kids or disrespecting their sexuality.
“It does prevent teachers from talking about it in class and weaving gender orientation conversation into lessons,” Ms. Farah said. “It is common practice to regularly ask kids about gender identity through student surveys and for teachers to ask kids what their pronouns are and if they’ve changed. These practices are not relevant to academics and do not belong in schools.”