Gov. Ron DeSantis and like-minded ideologues in the Legislature are drawing Florida into a culture war. Their battlegrounds of choice are public schools as they target racial and sexual minorities, people who defy DeSantis' dictates and books challenging far-right dogma. Worst of all, they'll shove local officials, taxpayers and most of all, students, into the line of fire.
A recent meeting of a School Board in suburban Orlando was a preview of what the coming battles might look like. The elected members of the board in Seminole County did their constituents proud, standing in defense of intellectual freedom and vulnerable students. But they should not have been forced into this fight, and it's only the beginning.
Errors born of fear
At issue was a spread in the Lyman High School yearbook, depicting a student-led walkout in protest of a new law that restricts discussion of LGBTQ+ issues in school. Dubbed the "don't say gay" bill, the legislation (HB 1557) allows parents to protest discussion of gender roles or sexual identity that's not "age appropriate," an intentionally vague invitation to inject homophobia into classrooms and to marginalize students.
The text in the yearbook does not take a stand on the bill, but it emphasizes the support Lyman students felt for their LGBTQ+ classmates. The colorful, exuberant layout depicts students waving rainbow flags with headlines like "love is love." After the yearbook was printed, an apprehensive administrator questioned the subject matter and whether it implied the protest was sponsored by the school. Superintendent Serita Beamon said the decision was made, after conferring with the board's attorney, to order large stickers that would be pasted over the offending content. She denied that there was any intent to target students based on what they were protesting.
That was a mistake. We have a hard time understanding why Beamon - who served as the school district's attorney before becoming superintendent - did not seek a less drastic, controversial option. At the same time, however, we can see how school officials across the state will overreact on the side of caution, intimidated by the poisonous rhetoric from DeSantis' office and key lawmakers even before the worst of his agenda takes effect.
But the anguish from audience members was equally compelling.
'It's OK to simply exist'
For more than two hours, Seminole board members heard from students, teachers and community members, and pleaded with them to stop the defacement of the yearbook.
Student staff members were courageous and prepared to defend their work. A yearbook photographer read the district's restrictions on yearbook content. An editor quoted case law that protected students' freedom of speech. Another described her outrage at the threat to erase a moment that was deeply significant to many students - something they will tell their own kids about someday.
Madison Koesler, a Lyman High graduate who took the photos of the protest, implored board members in a trembling voice. "They were protesting to be heard. To be seen, to be cared about. To beg to be told it's OK to simply exist," she said of students whose images would be covered. "If you cover these pictures, you are hurting the people you are supposed to protect."
Then it was the School Board members' turn. They made it clear that they were dismayed and disgusted to be caught in hyper-partisan crossfire. They quickly settled on a far less onerous option - small stickers pasted on the page, saying the protest was not school-sponsored. They won't cover any photographs or text.
"I will personally write the check to order different stickers," Board Chairman Amy Pennock said. "I will drive to 10 different stores and buy stickers." Other board members agreed.
Worse to come
This is what it will look like for the coming months, until the "hate slate" of laws passed in the 2022 session are repealed or struck down. Another law punishes teaching a concept known as critical race theory, and is likely to stifle discussion of the many ways racism can manifest in today's world. Others make it easier for ideologues to challenge the availability of books that address bigotry. Recently the state went through an embarrassing exercise where dozens of math textbooks were rejected because of "objectionable" content - that a review by the Sun Sentinel and the Orlando Sentinel revealed wasn't even present in most of the cancelled books.
Florida's elected school officials, who can expect to be buffeted by more emotional and accusatory scenes, deserve better. So do teachers, who are afraid to speak out freely lest they skirt the new law. So do taxpayers, whose resources are being wasted by these divisive distractions.
But those who will suffer most are the students, bewildered and betrayed by the decisions of adults they trusted. The clash in Seminole County ended in a moment of triumph, but it left a lingering fear. More pain lies ahead for students across Florida, and they did nothing to deserve it.
The Sun Sentinel Editorial Board consists of Editorial Page Editor Steve Bousquet, Deputy Editorial Page Editor Dan Sweeney, and Editor-in-Chief Julie Anderson. Editorials are the opinion of the Board and written by one of its members or a designee. To contact us, email at email@example.com .