After more than 500 students protested Florida’s infamous “Don’t Say Gay” bill last week, the 17-year-old who organized the statewide walkout was suspended from school.
Jack Petocz, a junior at Flagler Palm Coast High School, says he organized the March 3 protest to send a message that students won’t stand for discrimination against their peers. More than 18 schools across the state took part in last week’s demonstration. At Petocz’s Palm Coast campus, the rally was held in the school’s football stadium, where students gathered around Petocz holding Pride flags as he spoke on a megaphone.
“It was really inspiring to see everyone partake,” Petocz tells Xtra in an interview. “I never envisioned how many students would come that day.”
The walkouts took place seven days after House Bill 1557, officially known as the “Parental Rights in Education” bill, passed the Florida House in a 69-47 vote. The legislation claims to give parents more agency in decisions regarding what their children are being taught in schools, but LGBTQ2S+ advocates have taken issue with language that would ban “classroom discussion about sexual orientation and gender identity in certain grade levels.”
The bill passed the Senate 22-17 on Tuesday and is headed to the desk of Gov. Ron DeSantisu, who is expected to sign it. If made law, its proponents say it would only impact students in “primary grades” (defined as kindergarten up to the third grade); but opponents of the bill say it’s so vaguely written that it could be far more sweeping.
This isn’t the first time this year that Petocz has rallied against anti-LGBTQ2S+ policy. In February, he protested the Flagler County School Board’s decision to ban All Boys Aren’t Blue, a memoir chronicling author George M. Johnson’s upbringing as a Black, queer youth. The book has been removed from school libraries in at least 15 states, according to South Florida Gay News.
While Petocz was not disciplined for criticizing his school district for targeting LGBTQ2S+ books, he believes his protest of the “Don’t Say Gay” bill became a problem after a school board member raised concern. He says the protest had been previously approved by the school administration
“[The school board member] was not in agreement with this protest occurring,” he says.
Petocz says that organizers faced “continual attempts to limit turnout” throughout the week, including being told to change dates, times and locations on several occasions, requests with which he complied. An hour before the event started, he was pulled aside and asked not to pass out any of the 200 Pride flags he had purchased.
With encouragement from students, Petocz distributed the flags at the protest. He says that he witnessed school personnel demanding students give them their flags and intimidating them for attending the protest.
“Don’t let them take your flags, don’t let them silence you,” he told the crowd on a megaphone.
Petocz was officially suspended for violating student conduct, which states the students can be suspended for participating in disruptive actions that interfere with school operations, a spokesperson for the district told the Daytona Beach News Journal. The spokesperson confirmed that the school has supported other student protests in the past.
LGBTQ2S+ advocacy groups have called upon Flagler Palm Coast High School to overturn Petocz’s suspension, including the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) and GLAAD. In a statement, Equality Florida Executive Director Nadine Smith says the statewide organization stands “firmly with Jack and his peers as they work to resist the extremist agenda of Florida’s governor and his legislative allies.”
Cameron Driggers, a classmate and friend, created a Change.org petition on Friday urging that Petocz’s suspension be “rescinded immediately” and asking that he receive a “personal apology” from the school’s principal. The petition has already received more than 7,500 signatures.
As the junior class president at Flagler Palm Coast, Driggers supported Petocz by making flyers, contacting media and working with the school’s student government to increase student turnout. He says the “Don’t Say Gay” bill is “repugnant” and urged young people to do what is necessary to fight it, whether by protesting at their schools or voting at the ballot box in November. DeSantis is currently up for re-election.
“If we can’t vote yet, the next best thing is to show out and show up in numbers,” Driggers tells Xtra.
For his part, Petocz wants to meet with DeSantis to discuss the bill, which will go into effect on July 1 if signed into law. Petocz believes this legislation is part of a wider movement to limit LGBTQ2S+ visibility, and he says he will keep doing anything it takes to fight it.
“This will inherently make queer people taboo by limiting their existence in public schools,” he says. “As a gay person myself, this bill will hurt my community.”