By Pat Bryant*

The Transformative Justice Coalition (TRC) announced that the group plans to come to Florida and join the resistance to Governor DeSantis and Republican Party “anti-woke” policies. Those policies aim  to finish stripping away  freedoms like the 13th, 14th, 15th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution and the Voting Rights Act.  Led by Civil Rights Attorney Barbara Arnwine, TJC had phenomenal success organizing the arrest, trial, and conviction of three white supremacists who killed Ahumad Arbery in Brunswick,  Georgia. The TJC also led a voter caravan that stretched over 20 plus cities to increase turnout for the mid-term elections.

Pinellas County Florida Public Schools is one of the latest scenes where the battle brews between teachers, parents, students, school board members and an“anti-woke” Republican dominated legislature and Governor Ron DeSantis. “Anti-woke” is a conservative code to replace the “N” word and make it apply to negatively to LGBTQ constituents and people of color.

On a spring-like February evening in Largo, Florida, under the watchful eyes of state police, a small group rallied outside the Pinellas County School Board meeting vowing not to be turned back to a place when public education for all children was not a right in Florida and most of the South.

Their growing public opposition is to a number of proposed and already passed dystopian state laws:

  • one that would set up a process of decertifying unions and dues check off;
  • another proposed to outlaw the Democratic Party;
  • already banned public schools and private businesses from teaching people history that made people feel guilty for teaching about historical events that shows white racists in a bad light;
  • passed book banning and state media specialists that approve  classroom materials a felony offense to violate with up to 5 years imprisonment and $5000 fine;
  • programs that promote racial and gender equity in colleges are being replaced;
  • already charged and imprisoned former inmates of illegally voting when state officials sent them voter registration cards;
  • Governor DeSantis running his own slate of school board members to enforce the “anti-woke” agenda in local schools.
  • Not passed are bills have been written that would require reporters and bloggers who write about legislators and government officials to register with the state.

Florida’s laws are dystopian. This means a “society in which there is great suffering or injustice usually imposed by dictatorial regimes”. Florida is so dystopian that teachers are quitting, and substitutes are hired to replace them. Books are covered and removed in libraries and classrooms.

Pinellas County has vacancies for nearly 250 teachers and support personnel. School medical workers are afraid to treat transgender children.

Already there have been school walk out by students at some college campuses, that may happen in Pinellas County schools. But teachers and parents and teachers are gearing up for intense lobbying. School Board members got an earful here, a summary shared here, that stretched long into the evening.

One Board member began the public comment session with a quote from Mayou Angelo, “the more you know your history the more liberated you are.” A few of the 56 public commenters were excerpted below.

Michael Bagby a 40 year white male elementary school teachers union member said, “I was prouder of my country when I learned about the actual history because we changed. If I had not learned about our history I wouldn’t know anything. We need to know our history and what made us who we are today. Right now frankly I am afraid to teach for the first time in my career.”

Owen McCort, a sophomore at Collins High School is an honor student. He praised the quality of teachers and the honors program. But he said recent changes he has seen several teachers leave teaching due to new laws and poor pay and some weird laws in Florida. HB1 a proposed law to increase funding for vouchers would decrease funding for public schools which he said would not be good. “The foundation for public schools in Florida is being eroded” he said.

Transformative Justice Coalition Coming to Florida

Brant Robinson, a longtime teacher said students are not indoctrinated, in response to a DeSantis claim that the AP Black history course was “endoctrination”.   ‘Students can handle teaching of real history”, he said. Reading Richard Wright’s “Black Boy”, when he was a student, allowed him to understand the plight of Blacks.

Van McCord Astrom, a mother appealed for the board to lobby against HB1 a law that would allow every public school student in Florida to receive vouchers that can be used to pay for education in private schools. “What we need is more support for our public schools, and not vouchers” as she pushed for Board members to go to the legislature and oppose increased vouchers.

A school social worker said 4000 students were homeless. Students are routinely late due to lack of bus drivers. Nearly 1500 tips have been received about students having mental health crises. She asked for community focus on students who are deeply disturbed.

Beth Weinstein deplored hiring of police in schools. She said police target students of color and criminalize them putting them in the school to prison pipeline. We need to rethink our approach to public schools as the backbone to our society. More allocation of resources need to be allocated, she said.

Meagan Summers asked to Board to reconsider banning “The Bluest Eye” the Nobel Prize winner by author Tony Morrison. A parent had complained which prompted the Board action.

Transformative Justice Coalition Coming to Florida

Lory McCullogh quoted the last line of the pledge to allegiance “with liberty and justice for all”.  She said that if “you are not serious about liberty and justice for all please don’t put your hands over your hearts.” She said for politicians to decide what books can be read is terrifying. “I don’t understand why we are not all flooding Tallahassee and removing them from office” she said.

Andria Dork thanked the Board for recognizing unions of teachers and other staff. Ninety years ago teachers the union was formed. In 1968 there was a statewide walk out for collective bargaining. Now Florida is poised to make it harder for unions to operate.

Wendy Castro is a substitute teacher who recently miscarried. She decried unreasonable pay, no sick leave, terrible policies, high medical copays, low pay and disrespect . “Teachers are mental health counselors….There are teachers barely able to live in the cities they help cultivate. There are support staff who work day in and day out to make sure scholars are successful. These policies must be voted out. This is about a generation who will not be able to enrich their minds because you are afraid confront your fears.”

Jack Wallace is an organizer for the teachers’ union. He urged the board not to let the school system be privatized, by measures pushed by Governor DeSantis and Moms for Liberty.

Nancy Liu has two biracial children and is a school librarian. She said Florida has the highest book bans in the country. She said “we should not be banning books because we don’t like the ideas in them. “  Any removal of books should have a public discussion she said. Further she said “we need books that would allow all of us to represented and truly seen.”

*Pat Bryant is a longtime journalist and urban planner that covers the South

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.