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Following Walkout, Students and Educators Keep Resisting DeSantis’s Censorship

As legislation targeting BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ students and educators mounts, advocates say they refuse to sit idly by.

A group of Florida International University students, staff and community members participate in the "Fight for Florida Students and Workers" protest against Gov. Ron DeSantis's recent actions to remake higher education at state universities and colleges, on February 23, 2023, in Miami.

Gov. Ron DeSantis is taking full advantage of the Republican supermajority in Florida’s state legislature. The governor continues to introduce what advocates call fascist censorship laws that recall Germany’s Hitler-era systematic erasure of LGBTQIA+ and BIPOC experiences. Bills to “stop wokeness” in Florida’s education system have multiplied since the infamous “Don’t Say Gay” law and Stop WOKE Act were signed into law last year. The legislation has been copied across the country by other conservative lawmakers, forcing the histories and identities of marginalized students into the shadows and stifling critical thinking. As DeSantis works to dismantle and defund public education, advocates say the governor is doubling down on what his base sees as his winning issue: the illusion of full “parental choice” over curriculum.

In December, DeSantis’ office released a memo requesting data from public colleges and universities on courses and programs related to diversity, equity, and inclusion and “critical race theory.” According to ABC News, the Dec. 28 memo further required public colleges and universities to describe which programs and campus-related activities were connected to diversity, equity, inclusion, and critical race theory by Jan. 13. Institutions were also instructed to report how much the programs cost, how much state-funding would be spent on them, and how many employees would be included in the instruction.

One of the governor’s other recent requirements forces public universities to disclose medical data on trans students to audit the amount of public funding going toward “nonacademic pursuits to best assess how to get our colleges … refocused on education and truth.” DeSantis also recently blocked the Advanced Placement (AP) African American Studies course because he claims it goes against the Stop WOKE Act, and he placed a ban on displaying the Pride flag or any flag other than the state, U.S., or military flags at government buildings. The governor has also introduced legislation that would make it easier for state officials to sue reporters for defamation, appointed conservative board members at the historically liberal New College of South Florida, and expanded a private school voucher program that would take away $2.4 billion from public schools.

As legislation targeting BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ students and educators mounts, advocates across the state say they refuse to sit idly by and plan to continue to resist DeSantis’ censorship.

Students hosted a statewide walkout earlier this month. Two actions took place on Feb. 23 across college campuses: Can’t Ban Us, organized by the Dream Defenders, Power U Center for Social Change, Black Men Build, and FL Student Power, and Stand For Freedom, organized by University of South Florida student Ben Braver. Both actions called on students to walk out of their classes, jobs, meetings, and commitments in protest of the restrictions while staging Black history teach-ins with the goal of showing DeSantis “no matter what they do, we’re not backing down.”

According to Braver, the climate on his Tampa-based campus is one of opposition toward DeSantis, even across political lines.

“We agree on basic values of freedom,” Braver said. “I think that when we start using that language, people will see that they do agree with us. We believe there should be a diverse and vibrant marketplace of ideas, and that is one of the central tenets of our education system. DeSantis is trying to take that away; he’s destroying our education.”

Braver wants students to feel empowered to take on DeSantis and says that students should contact their board of trustees to share their disapproval of complying with the governor’s demands.

“I believe that the college students in Florida need to take back the narrative,” he said. “We can’t let him put words in our mouths anymore, and we must fight for what we believe is right.”

Amelia, who requested to omit her last name out of fear of retaliation, has been a middle school language arts teacher for nine years and has worked for Broward County Public Schools for six years. Amelia currently teaches at a predominantly Black middle school in Broward County. At the start of the year, Amelia said that administrators warned teachers that they should be aware of the content of their libraries but that they could keep their books in the classroom. But in the last month, they told her that she had to dutifully inspect her class library and make sure she did not have anything labeled as “inappropriate.”

This alarmed Amelia because she has books relevant to her students’ interests. In her curriculum, she includes a book called “Dear Martin,” which is a reaction to police brutality and racism and incorporates literary analysis of Tupac Shakur and Angela Davis. To play it safe and avoid penalties, including the suspension of her teaching license, Amelia wrapped her library in yellow tape and temporarily closed it until she has time to go through each book and determine its “appropriateness” by the state’s latest standards.

“I wasn’t afraid before, but then after the way they put it, I [thought], maybe I really need to consider this,” Amelia said. “They made it seem like they’re out to get us.”

During a recent class, students asked Amelia if they could write about the latest censorship laws. One student in particular asked to write about the AP African American Studies course that the state is blocking.

“They understand what’s going on, and … you could tell that it bothers them, and they’re disappointed,” Amelia said. “I feel like by telling them that we’re not going to discuss these things, we’re not going to check out books about these things, we’re not going to teach these things … they feel like we’re stopping them from learning about themselves, from learning about others, and stopping them from just getting the complete education.”

Amelia, who was raised in Florida and attended Florida public schools, said there is a deep sense of sadness among her students.

“This is wrong,” she said. “I never thought we would, as a state, get to this point.”

Amelia hopes communities can trust teachers and allow them to make sound decisions for their children’s education. In the meantime, she hopes to find ways to continue including Shakur and Davis in her curriculum.

“I would love for us to be able to say, ‘Our children are smart enough to check out books that they’re interested in, and we have to be able to provide that access for them,’” Amelia said. “Because that’s what we’re here for: to give them that full education and allow them to learn about whatever it is they want to learn about.”

Executive Director for National Black Justice Coalition David Johns believes a big part of DeSantis’ strategy is theatrics and that the College Board has played into those theatrics by allowing the country to debate what is appropriate for an AP African American Studies course curriculum. The reality, Johns said, is that Black history cannot be taught without acknowledging that people who have contributed to Black history over time have been LGBTQIA+.

“[DeSantis] understands that one of the tactics that folks like to use for waging war to try and exterminate communities of people was to ban certain teachings and to censor the use of certain terms,” Johns said. “I use the terms fascist and totalitarian because he is enacting policies that are attacking, destroying academic freedom.”

According to a study by GLSEN and the National Black Justice Coalition, over half of Black LGBTQIA+ students (51.6%) felt unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation, 40.2% because of their gender expression, and 30.6% because of their race or ethnicity. Advocates say Black queer and trans students in Florida will face even more dangerous circumstances in the classroom because of these bills. Johns, who taught elementary school students for two years, says the policy will exacerbate what he already knows to be a lack of support for students who identify as LGBTQIA+ or are assumed to be in some way.

“There’s a sense of urgency in my voice because the DeSantis ideology has already shown to be effective,” Johns said. “I don’t know where the line is [being drawn]. What keeps me up at night is sensing that for so many people, in particular people who have the privilege of being responsible for children, there is not a clear line.”

According to Bloomberg, the number of bills targeting the LGBTQIA+ community is also at an all-time high. Republicans nationwide proposed more than 320 anti-LGBTQIA+ bills in the first half of 2022. In 2021, 27 of the 268 introduced bills became law. Data has shown that restrictive legislation has consequences on the mental and physical health of the queer and trans community, especially youth. A 2021 study shows that LGBTQIA+ teens in states with homophobic and transphobic policies were more likely to attempt suicide than those in states with inclusive policies. Last March, the CDC released data that nearly 47% of gay, lesbian, and bisexual youth seriously considered attempting suicide in the 12 months before the survey, compared to 13.6% of heterosexual youth. Advocates fear legislation like “Don’t Say Gay” and other censorship legislation will only exacerbate these consequences for queer and trans youth.

“They are doing a lot to erase lines and move goalposts and make it harder to even have conversations like this,” Johns said. “I think a lot about the empty libraries as a result of people not wanting to trip over these intentionally vague lines that he continues to talk about.”

Johns says students and faculty should continue to resist harmful policies and that a child’s first educator, their caregivers, should make sure their children learn African American history and continue to grow and learn inside and outside the formal classroom.

“So much of what’s happening now is a run-up to the next presidential election,” Johns said. “I hope folks are prepared to vote and support the ability of other people, in particular communities that are most often targets of disinformation and disenfranchisement efforts, to ensure that they’re able to vote as well.”

Johns also notes that children, who cannot vote, are being directly impacted. He hopes that people in positions of power consider the students’ needs as they decide “who has the privilege of having power in our very young and very fragile democracy.”

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