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Students Decry Disciplinary Actions Taken Against Teacher Who Showed Disney Film

"The system is broken," the teacher in question, Jenna Barbee, said at the board meeting this week.

A still from the Disney film Strange World (2022).

Over 100 people registered to give public comment at a Hernando County School District board meeting on Tuesday to discuss a teacher in the district showing her fifth-grade class a Disney film that featured a gay character in it.

A single complaint by a parent against the teacher, Jenna Barbee, led to two investigations into her actions, due to that parent, who also serves on the school board itself, asserting that her showing the film ran afoul of the state’s law restricting teaching topics that have LGBTQ themes.

The movie in question, “Strange World,” is a Disney film with a PG rating. Earlier in the year, Barbee sent out permission slips to parents alerting them that she may show PG-rated movies in her class.

The film is not primarily concerned with any character’s sexuality — indeed, the character in question, a teenager, is only alluded to being gay briefly in the film, and his sexuality does not play a major part in the film’s plot.

Barbee has said she picked the film primarily for its scientific themes. But right-wing board member Shannon Rodriguez complained about the film, resulting in district- and state-level inquiries into Barbee.

Rodriguez was endorsed for school board last year by the far right group Moms for Liberty, an organization that touts itself as grassroots but which has deep ties to Republican operatives and donors. Rodriguez has also gone on record during school board meetings saying that she believes she was chosen by God to serve in her elected post.

With more than 100 chapters across the country, the group has demanded changes to a number of school rules, often targeting curricula or other policies that censor lessons about Black or LGBTQ history, and pushes harmful and baseless rhetoric about “groomers” to achieve their ends.

According to reporting from the Miami-based station WSVN, the meeting was “evenly divided” in terms of support for either Barbee’s or Rodriguez’s positions regarding the district’s response to the complaint against the teacher. Several parents and community members, including students, however, expressed disdain with the limits being imposed on teachers in the district.

One high schooler, for instance, said that Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law, as well as the way the school district acted in response to it, has created a hostile working environment for teachers, making them “scared to say anything that will get them fired.” The law forbids teachers from including in their lessons any mention of LGBTQ content.

Another high school student also berated school board members for somehow thinking these restrictions were protecting students, noting that LGBTQ imagery and discussions on LGBTQ topics were not harmful.

“You need to listen to us when we say that the rainbow in our classroom is not indoctrinating us, seeing two girls together in a Disney movie is not brainwashing us, and your policies are not protecting us from anything,” that student said.

Barbee herself spoke at the meeting, sharing a poem she wrote on the dangers of limiting what teachers could discuss in their classrooms:

Right now as a collective, I will tell you we are failing. The system is broken, and the Earth is wailing. Let the students read and learn. Let the teachers teach. Everyone deserves to be represented. And that’s what we need to preach

An investigation into Barbee by the district has concluded, finding that she violated policies on not seeking permission from her school to include showing a movie in her class but that she acted properly in seeking permission slips from parents beforehand. A separate Florida Department of Education inquiry is still ongoing.

The restrictions on teachers in Florida, due to the “Don’t Say Gay” law are causing teachers to leave the state in droves. The state has had a shortage of teachers for years, driven in large part by the low pay that educators receive, but the number of vacancies has more than doubled since Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), who who has made right wing control of school curricula a centerpiece of his agenda, was first elected governor.

Within the Hernando County School District itself, around 50 teachers are planning to leave “after what they’ve experienced this year” due to this complaint and others like it, said Lisa Masserio, president of the Hernando Classroom Teachers’ Association.

Barbee is among the teachers who aren’t planning to return to their positions next year.

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