Crowd packs School Board meeting in furor over LGBTQ books

By GARRY OVERBEY, The Daily Sun, Oct 10, 2023.

Judy Minier, Brendan Burke and Joanne Kropf wave their rainbow flags at Tuesday’s Charlotte County School Board meeting – PHOTO BY GARRY OVERBEY

PORT CHARLOTTE — When the pledge of allegiance faded with the words “and justice for all,” one voice added, “Someday.”

That moment set the tone for Tuesday’s Charlotte County School Board meeting, where more than 120 people gathered to express themselves about the district’s stance on removing books with LGBTQ+ content from classrooms and school libraries.

Before more than two-dozen people spoke, Superintendent Mark Vianello read a statement affirming the district is committed to “all students.”

“As superintendent, I’m committed to providing a high-quality, relevant education that equips every student with the skills and abilities needed to successfully pursue their hopes and dreams,” he said. “This is without exception.”

However, he noted the realities that Charlotte County Public Schools faces in complying with state law.

“We recognize the importance of legal compliance, not only for the benefit of our students, but for the livelihood of our instructional staff,” he said.

This point was driven home by one of the first speakers, North Port resident Patrick Eaton, who said he recently heard of a teacher who was afraid to assign the classic novel “To Kill A Mockingbird.”

“The people taking away these books are not professional educators,” he said, adding that banning books only encourages a climate of bullying and fear.

Legal counsel advised the district to “err on the side of caution,” according to School Board attorney Michael McKinley, who added that, under his interpretation of the law, books in school libraries must be treated the same as books for classroom instruction.

This means books with questionable content must be reviewed to ensure they are in compliance with state law.

Several speakers, however, encouraged the district to buck the system.

“You may be asked to follow the law, and if you find it unjust and morally incorrect, it is your responsibility to negate that law,” said Jeff Lustig of Port Charlotte, who raised a son who is gay.

His son was inspired by the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York City, a watershed moment in gay liberation.

“Are we not going to tell their stories?” he added. “Are we going to do the same with slavery?”

Punta Gorda resident Paul Platt said laws “sometimes need to be challenged.”

“Your lawyer’s right,” he said. “Sometimes it’s easier to follow the law. But the law is wrong and unjust to the children and to the sovereignty of the community.”

Ed Conrad, a former clinical psychiatrist and college professor, said it’s pointless to ban books when children can use their phones to find any book they want in “10 seconds.”

He said debates over culture-war issues like LGBTQ books are “false flags” to “keep us from talking to each other and finding common ground.”

Some younger members of the community spoke about their struggles.

Hal Trejo, who uses they/them pronouns, is president and co-founder of ARAY, All Rainbow and Allied Youth, a Charlotte County LGBTQ+ organization.

They said they almost died at the age of 14, throwing themselves into “unsafe behavior.” They fear for the next wave of youth.

“We are a country going through a reckoning of whether we will let the fear of the unknown rule us or enjoy seeing the world in full color,” Trejo said.

The district’s policies came under scrutiny recently after the nonprofit Florida Freedom to Read Project shared a document with journalists detailing a meeting with library staff, Vianello and McKinley.

According to the document, which a district spokesperson later stressed was not a transcript but was created from a staff member’s notes, Vianello and McKinley indicated that gay themes and characters “cannot exist” in books in school libraries and classrooms.

District officials said they are following the law.

In May, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed an expansion of what critics call Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law, forbidding classroom instruction on sexual identity and gender orientation in all grades. The statute had previously only applied to grades K-3.

While many at the meeting spoke against removing books from schools, some said DeSantis is on the right track, with one speaker saying schools should “stay out of our children’s pants.”

Jason Brent of Port Charlotte said he’s uncomfortable with “rainbow safe” stickers in classrooms, which indicate a “safe space” for LGBTQ youth.

He said rainbow paraphernalia is inclusive of everyone — except straight people.

“They actively convey a divisive message,” he said. “Let us parents be the one to guide our children’s ethical and moral development.”

Port Charlotte’s David Kesselring said the issue is a key reason why the community should embrace the concept of school choice.

“That way, parents can choose what they’re exposed to.”

Student Leonardo Trent said in today’s social environment, gay students are favored and “Christian conservative” students like himself are more likely to find themselves targets of bullying.

He said “Straight Pride” stickers should be considered.

 Image Credits: More than 120 people turned out for the Charlotte County School Board meeting Tuesday night 9Oct2023 – PHOTO BY GARRY OVERBEY