Hundreds gather at Florida school board meeting over Disney movie controversy: 'Your policies are not protecting us … – USA TODAY

Florida teachers and community members packed a Hernando County School Board meeting amid national furor over an investigation into a fifth grade teacher who showed a Disney movie in her classroom.
Jenna Barbee, a teacher at Winding Waters K-8, said Hernando County School Board member Shannon Rodriguez reported her to the Florida Department of Education for showing her students the 2022 movie “Strange World” – one of the first Disney films to have an openly LGBTQ character in a central role.
The school board and state department of education opened an investigation into Barbee, who has argued that the Disney movie related to a class Earth science lesson and did not show sexually inappropriate content. The animated movie follows a family of explorers on an adventure to save a plant that is their society’s source of energy.
Hundreds of teachers, students and community members crowded the school board’s meeting Tuesday night to speak on the controversy and related state education policies, such as the Parental Rights in Education Act or what opponents call the “Don’t Say Gay” law.
More than 100 people registered to speak during public comment, and many shared their concerns over the school district’s high numbers of teacher vacancies. One high school student said teachers are “scared to say anything that will get them fired.”
“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,” another high school student said at the meeting.
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Though the school board’s meeting agenda did not contain an item directly addressing Barbee’s case, public commenters tied it to other agenda items focused on book bans and personnel recommendations.
Lisa Masserio, president of the Hernando Classroom Teachers’ Association, said Tuesday’s agenda had 33 resignations of “educators leaving our district, possibly leaving teaching entirely, after what they’ve experienced this year.”
According to Masserio, the number of resignations have doubled since May 2022. She said the political climate and politically motivated attacks have affected educator morale, “making educators question whether this is the right place for them.”
WFLA-TV reported that Barbee is one of nearly 50 teachers planning to resign from the school district. A district spokesperson told the outlet on May 18 that the district had 150 unfilled instructional positions.
Others argued that banning books and not showing certain Disney films restricts students’ learning and removed representation from classrooms.
“The accusation that a PG Disney movie, a part of which was about a science lesson, is somehow stripping children of their innocence we all know is bogus,” said Sandy Roth, who has volunteered for Hernando County’s Guardian Ad Litem Program for more than 17 years.
Public commenters also targeted Rodriguez, who was elected to the school board last fall and was endorsed by the conservative parents’ rights group Moms for Liberty. She has argued there is “smut” and “porn” on schools’ library shelves and said she wants those books to be removed, according to Suncoast News.
Though the school board has closed its investigation, the state’s inappropriate conduct investigation is open, Barbee told CNN.
Barbee was reported to the Florida Department of Education after a student told their mom, Rodriguez, who is a member of the school board, about the movie being shown in class.
CNN reported that the investigation concluded the Disney movie was connected to the curriculum and Barbee had approval forms for all of the students. But the school district said Barbee still violated the staff handbook by not seeking and receiving administrative approval before showing the film.
Since the announcement of the investigations, Barbee has defended showing the film and said every student in her class had a signed parent permission slip that said PG movies were allowed.
“Times have changed so much and they are so micromanaged, they’re not allowed to teach anymore,” Barbee told the USA TODAY NETWORK-Florida. “Teachers stay for the children, but because of the laws and the fear of being let go for saying one wrong thing, they can’t connect to their students.”
Under the “Don’t Say Gay” law, Florida educators are prohibited from teaching about sexual orientation and gender identity.
Since the law’s enactment last year and its recent expansion by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, teachers have expressed fear and anxiety over the vague wording of the law. Opponents have said the law targets books and classroom materials with LGBTQ characters and themes.
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Barbee’s case has made national headlines, causing school district officials to be targeted by lawmakers and the public.
As of Tuesday, a petition to remove Rodriguez has reached nearly 24,000 signatures on Change.org. The petition started two weeks ago and has a goal of 25,000 signatures.
“With the school year coming to an end, time is of the essence. This petition urges Mrs. Rodriguez to listen to the community, step down from her position as a school board member, and serve her community and the school system in a different capacity, as this is not a good fit,” wrote Hernando County resident and teacher Shelby Waymire, creator of the Change.org petition.
Hours before the board meeting Tuesday, three Hernando County legislators called for the resignation of Hernando County School District Superintendent John Stratton, the Hernando Sun reported.
The Republican legislators said Stratton has “lost the confidence” of the community.
“We can no longer sit back and allow the Hernando County school system to make national news for its poor decisions, lack of transparency and accountability, and its contempt for parental rights,” their statement reads.
Contributing: Ana Goñi-Lessan, Tallahassee Democrat

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