Student’s Message to Florida Lawmakers: Stop Monitoring My Education

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Sitting at my desk at Flagler Palm Coast High School, I witness the teachers’ intense dedication, knowledge and burnout. Throughout my eleven years in the Flagler County School District, I have had tremendous opportunities, from numerous extracurricular activities to loaning a school-provided laptop. The singular resource that reigns supreme in my mind is access to our teachers and staff.

Dedicated to educating with love and passion, our teachers are demonized and targeted. Already overworked and underpaid during the Covid pandemic, we are witnessing a dramatic and dangerous shift as teachers and other school workers are vilified by fringe parent groups and GOP legislation. Unfortunately, unsurprisingly, we are experiencing a mass exodus of these professionals. There are currently 72 vacancies in the Flagler County school district alone, including 11 teachers, 4,200 vacancies across Florida, according to the Florida Education Association, a record shortfall described as “critical” by the Department of Education.

Jack Petocz. (© FlaglerLive)

Locally, we have seen an attack on our talented support staff, with the attempted banning of four titles from our school libraries. In order to diversify content and provide representation of different communities, media specialists have worked diligently to provide inclusive content. In particular, they amplified marginalized voices such as LGBTQ+ and BIPOC (black, indigenous, people of color) perspectives.

Outraged by this progression, a member of the local council filed a police report on the inclusion of these titles in our local high schools, arbitrarily declaring a “pornographic”. Not only was this an attempt to silence the voices of minority groups, but it was a direct attack on our staff. Make no mistake about it, the filing of the police report served only one purpose: to intimidate and threaten. Although the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office dismissed the complaint—there was no basis for a criminal investigation—the precedent stood. It was a case of intimidation on the basis of bigotry.

In another effort to diminish queer voices, Florida’s Senate Committee on Education passed SB 1834. Invented the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill by activists, the bill seeks to ban ‘a district school to encourage class discussion on sexual orientation or gender identity in primary school”. school levels. This will effectively marginalize LGBTQ+ experiences and erase our existence in public school environments. There is no current definition of “primary levels” in Florida law, which could lead to arbitrary and capricious application. Additionally, the law seeks to compel staff members to disclose sensitive information to parents, such as sexuality.

ocd flaglerliveThis does not promote a safe environment in our schools. If a teacher is required to take a student out, that child may face incredible abuse and stress in their home environment. The law’s protections against this are vague and subjective, and easily misunderstood. According to a study conducted by the ACLU, 40% of homeless youth identify with the LGBTQ+ community. Additionally, the Trevor Project finds that young gay men are “four times more likely to seriously consider suicide.”

Why are we putting students like me at risk? Aren’t our lives just as valuable?

Flagler County hasn’t always been the most inclusive environment growing up, especially for those who identify as LGBTQ+. In 4th grade, I had my first encounter with learned hate and an attempt to ostracize myself for my existence. Typically, the boys played on the kickball court at my elementary school, while the girls stayed on the shaded patio and talked. I also often sat under the shaded patio, reading or talking with them. One day a boy came to me and the dreaded question came up. In a humiliating tone, he said, “Jack, why are you here?” What, are you gay?

Although not at the level of hate I’ve experienced recently, I left feeling upset and with tears in my eyes. The singular word: homosexual, a monosyllabic word that my brain had learned to think was synonymous with disappointment, lack of masculinity and shame by society. A school staff member I had known for years saw me upset and called me. I told him what had happened. She gave me a big hug, comforted me, told me everything would be fine. “They have hate in their hearts, be who you are,” she told me. This conversation marked me. It made me feel comfortable in my own skin and eventually got me out as a freshman. These experiences can mean the difference between life and death. It is these teachers who make the difference. It is our ability to trust them, it is their ability to speak to us with confidence, that makes this vital difference.

It is the trust that lawmakers are now breaking.

Finally, we have seen attempts to monitor teachers and classroom environments in the state, also with the HB 1055 passing committee. This bill aims to install cameras in classrooms and force our teachers to wear microphones. Not only will this cause additional stress for our talented professionals, but it will further limit meaningful conversations and relationships between teachers and students. Our teachers have the feeling that they will be examined under the microscope. A single sentence taken out of context could call their abilities into question. Almost certainly our lessons will become mundane and highly regulated. Why don’t we trust adults with a college education to foster a safe and inclusive learning environment? Would you commit to wearing a microphone and camera in your own profession?

These bills underscore an obsessive fixation: an attempt to control my education by Governor Ron DeSantis and the Florida GOP. Your actions cause teachers to lose their love for the profession and resign. Public education is the most essential tool for upward social mobility and progress. Stop attacking it to push your twisted agenda. You are hurting future generations, and mine.

Jack Petocz, a FlaglerLive contributor, is a junior at Flagler Palm Coast High School who plans to major in political science, with a minor in law, in college. He was featured last month in a New York Times article on efforts to counter book bans in schools and has subsequently been interviewed on MSNBC, the BBC and other outlets.

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