Thousands of Students in Florida skipped class on April 21 to demonstrate against Governor Ron DeSantis’ reforms to the state’s public schools. Two days after the state Board of Education voted to extend his “Don’t Say Gay” law through 12th grade, students across the state participated in a massive demonstration that drew support from at least 300 high schools and 90% of the state’s colleges, including all of the state’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities, in accordance to the youth-led group Walkout 2 Learn.
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Zander Moricz, a recent high school graduate from Florida who is a plaintiff in a suit challenging the law, describes the moment as “incredibly powerful.” We got hundreds of students to sign a vow to vote, and many of them also attended a controversial history class.
Last year, the Florida legislature approved a bill making it illegal to teach about sexual orientation and gender identity to students in grades K-3 and mandating that any such training in the upper grades be “age-appropriate.” At the DeSantis’ direction, the board recently enacted a series of measures, one of which was an extension of the ban to include all grade levels. There is a 30-day “procedural notification” delay before it can take effect.
Instead of waiting for the legislature to act, this is not the first occasion that DeSantis has imposed legislation targeting the LGBTQ community and people of color in Florida. This year, he ordered the Florida Medical and Osteopathic Boards to prohibit providing gender-affirming health care to transgender minors, a move that legislators are currently considering making law.
DeSantis, who is expected to run for president in 2024, has claimed that his victory in the governor’s race gives him the authority to make sweeping policy changes without seeking legislative approval. This is exceedingly unlikely in the Republican-controlled state of Florida. Many state governors and attorneys general exercise similar discretionary powers.
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He has also banned AP courses on African American history and stated his intention to eliminate diversity initiatives and critical race theory education from Florida’s universities.
Last week, the state mandated that all students participate to guarantee that educators do not deviate from delivering lessons that are aligned with statutory academic standards, even though DeSantis and his supporters had said the ban on early-grade discussions of LGBTQ topics was needed to protect young children from inappropriate materials.
Moricz, now a 19-year-old student at Harvard, believes the protests, which were followed by community gatherings in certain areas, served a dual function. He argues that young people ought to take action to safeguard free speech and show political leaders that they are paying attention and want to vote.
“Right now,” he argues, “there is an atmosphere of fear” among Florida’s student body. Parents, educators, and students in Florida are being ignored by the state legislature. The governor of Florida has the ear of this legislature.
The 20 minutes of activities planned for the students who joined the midday walkout included a condensed version of the Black history lecture that DeSantis had previously forbidden. The topic at hand is the silencing of Black and LGBTQ figures from history. Students who participated in the demonstrations also signed up to vote and sent letters to local authorities and school board members, promising to help elect candidates who will fight for student rights.
Moricz argues that it was crucial to give the student protesters a taste of their potential power by giving them concrete examples of their efforts bearing fruit, such as being able to take a college-level Black history course designed by Harvard professors who worked on the now-banned Advanced Placement course.
We’re safeguarding each other as young Floridians “take back the state deliberately and intentionally,” he says.
A year ago, Moricz became famous when he was asked to avoid using the word “gay” in his commencement address at Pine View School for the Gifted in Osprey, Florida, despite being a co-founder of the 2,000-member Social Equity Through Education Alliance.
“I used to hate my curls,” he admitted, taking off his graduation cap. I tried so hard to hide this aspect of myself, and I was ashamed of it morning and night.
The constant pain of trying to mend myself was too much to bear, though. Having curly hair in Florida is challenging because of the humidity, but I decided to embrace my uniqueness and show up to school as myself.
After the remarks went viral, Good Morning America reached out to have Moricz on their show.
To coordinate students around the state, Walkout 2 Learn used many tools popular among young people. For instance, on the day of the protest, participants were texted instructions, and they will be kept informed of the group’s progress using a Slack channel. Those who study Black History independently online will be awarded a certificate that can be used on university applications.
If your school threatens to punish you, the website says, “Don’t worry; we’ve got your back with attorneys and politicians.”
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