The Polk County School Board voted 5-2 on Tuesday night to end a more than 25-year practice of issuing proclamations, following complaints from two ultra-conservative groups about a planned proclamation in June expressing support for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer students and staff.
School Board members Kay Fields and Lisa Miller were the two dissenting votes. The board’s decision followed 90 minutes of often-impassioned comments from 34 members of the public and then another 40 minutes of discussion by board members.
School Board Chairwoman Sara Beth Wyatt said proclamations came under scrutiny at the beginning of the year when Superintendent Fred Heid realized there was no formal procedure in place for issuing them, although there was a request form on the district’s website.
For decades, proclamations have been read aloud toward the beginning of most School Board meetings, publicly recognizing everything from Black History Month to Child Abuse Prevention Month. The ceremonial activity typically lasted a few minutes and ended with someone taking a photo of a local individual or group accepting a certificate.
Proclamations are not taught in schools.
“Our superintendent had started receiving several requests for proclamations that were not from groups that even exist in Polk County,” Wyatt said. “One of them that I can very clearly remember was April or May and it was a group from Orlando that was having a 100-year celebration. They wanted a proclamation based on their involvement in our schools. We could not find what schools in Polk County they were involved in. Yet they wanted a proclamation from us saying how great of a partner they were.”
She said that’s when Heid began asking if there was a policy, what it was, if anyone could request a proclamation, and if they had to live in Polk County to do so.
Origin of the controversy
A month or so later, Heid announced at a board meeting that PCPS’s annual LGBTQ Pride Month proclamation, typically issued each June, was being put on hold this year as he sought guidance to create an “equitable and consistent” process for proclamations.
Two years ago during the Pride Proclamation, members of Winter Haven 912 and County Citizens Defending Freedom — which has since changed its name to Citizens Defending Freedom — stood up and turned their backs to the students who were accepting the proclamation.
Last year, no one protested as Fields read the proclamation to a room filled with rainbow colors and supportive parents and teachers.
While some conservative members of the public spoke Tuesday evening and said “proclamations had become divisive,” Miller and several other speakers said they weren’t divisive until the groups started complaining about the LGBTQ recognition.
“We’re not going to make a fraudulent forum that things are divisive,” Miller said. “There’s one major issue — the elephant in the room — people are very upset about the Pride Proclamation. So have the conversation, do our jobs … We need to be responsible elected officials and not try to take the side door of getting out of something that’s been very positive in this district.”
Miller pointed out that her predecessor, Tim Harris, read from the Bible and openly disagreed with the Pride Proclamation.
“He had every right to do that with free speech, that was what he did, and he was an elected official,” Miller said. “And if that’s how you feel, that’s what you should do. To try to get rid of all of them so you don’t have to look political and you don’t have to make decisions people don’t like, I think it’s not sound leadership. We have to have a hard conversation. So I think it’s about time we have them.”
The decision comes amid a flurry of legislation in the last 18 months that, among several things, forbids teachers from talking about sexuality or gender identity with students.
Heid noted in June that there was no consistency from year to year as to what was recognized. He provided the School Board with a list of what had been recognized in the last five years and how often:
- National School Counselors week — once
- Black History Month — three times
- Hispanic Heritage Month — three times
- School Library Month — twice
- Child Abuse Prevention Month — four times
- Safe Sleep Awareness Month — once
- Career and Technical Education Month — once
- Red Ribbon Month — three times
He also listed worthy causes that had not been recognized at all: Women’s History Month, Austism Acceptance Month, Deaf History Month, Asian-Pacific Heritage Month, Native American Heritage Month, Mental Health Awareness Month, and National Veterans and Military Families Month.
He said that LGBTQ history month has been acknowledged interchangeably with Pride Month.
“There are numerous other groups worthy of recognition,” Heid said in June. “How do we ensure that our procedures are reflective of all of the values and groups within our community?”
Last month, School Board member Rick Nolte proposed eliminating proclamations altogether and asked that the item be placed on the agenda. On Tuesday night, Nolte said proclamations had become divisive.
“It’s like the old West. It’s like a mob mentality,” Nolte said. “We need to be Americans first and we need to educate our children. We need to show them how to live. We don’t need to make someone else that doesn’t think our way feel bad. We just need to work as hard at educating our students how to read and write, learn our Constitution … We live in the greatest country in the world and we’re just blowing it up right now from inside. Let’s stop all this squabbling. Let’s all just get along and let’s put our children first.”
Speakers argue for and against
There seemed to be an equal number of public speakers for and against proclamations Tuesday evening.
Maria Keith called proclamations “an abuse of power.”
“You’re forcing your opinions and ideas on everyone,” Keith said. “This is not your job. Your job is to keep the children safe and to make sure that children receive the basic concepts of reading, writing and math in the early years and in history and other subjects after that. Each child’s needs are different and we need to consider that and not try and tell them who they are or what they need to be. … If they can read they can learn anything and it also allows them to think for themselves, not what they are told to think. Proclamations will not fix anything.”
JoEllen McPeak, a teacher at Lake Region Senior High School, said proclamations share a common purpose to recognize, honor or support particular individuals or groups.
“For historically marginalized groups, proclamations can be a powerful tool for creating and maintaining their identity,” McPeak said. “By acknowledging their unique experiences, struggles and contributions, proclamations can help to validate and affirm their place in society. This can be especially important for groups that have been historically erased or sidelined, such as women, people of color, LGBTQ+ and disabled persons. … Proclamations create space by publicly recognizing groups’ existences and needs. Proclamations can help break down barriers and promote inclusion. This is especially important in areas where discrimination or prejudice is still prevalent, such as schools and public spaces. Finally, proclamations can support equity by highlighting the specific challenges and injustices faced by historically marginalized groups by drawing attention to these issues. Proclamations can spur action and create momentum for change. Our students deserve to be seen and to feel safe in our schools.”
Donna Hager of Winter Haven said proclamations do not support providing a high-quality education for all students.
“Proclamations do not encourage accepting people as individuals, but support grouping people by labeling and judging them,” Hager said. She noted that some schools in Polk County are failing schools. “Proclamations don’t help bring up the grades in the school system. Proclamations do not improve reading performance, mathematical expertise, scientific understanding and writing skills. Proclamations do not make sport teams more cohesive, musical groups more pleasing to hear, artistic works more expressive, and students more prepared to be productive adults. It’s past time for the school board to focus on things that do not have anything to do with education.”
Kai Moore said he is a disabled queer activist from Polk County.
“Demands like these — that have the goal of silencing and erasing multiple minority groups such as the LGBTQ+ community, Black and Hispanic communities, disabled people and more — are usually spoon fed to boards like this by groups such as Moms For Liberty and other groups, some of which are here currently. (And), by the way, are usually either recognized hate groups, Nazis or other forms of supremacists.”
Wyatt banged her gavel and told Moore he was out of order.
Disturbing insignia disavowed by local group
Some later speakers took exception to Moore calling them Nazis. However, an elderly man photographed sitting near the back of the room had on a baseball cap with a small cross dangling from the back bearing a Nazi swastika and the year 1939 — when Germany invaded Poland, triggering World War II. The man has not been seen at any previous School Board meetings.
Robert Goodman, president of Polk County’s chapter of Citizens Defending Freedom, one of the groups that has complained about proclamations, said he did not know the man.
“I have never seen him at any event, not with our organization or with anyone else,” Goodman said. “If someone wore a swastika to one of our events, we would immediately ask them to leave.”
‘Recognitions’ proposed as alternative
School Board member William Allen said he received more than 200 emails and phone calls on the matter in recent weeks.
“It was alarming that if we’ve done proclamations for 26 years, yet we’ve not established a policy, that should be a concern to us,” Allen said.
He pointed out to his colleagues that there are written procedures in place to recognize students and staff for achievements and, going forward, this could be used to applaud groups including Hispanics, Blacks, computer programmers and the academically gifted.
“It’s a beautiful policy. Let’s put it into practice,” Allen said. “If you feel that this vote undermines humanity, I adamantly disagree. Overall, I hold the opinion that the school board should not declare proclamations, but we should use the policy that’s in place to recognize students and to recognize others around our community.”
Board Member Lori Cunningham agreed. She pointed out that earlier in the evening, during the recognitions of new administrators at various schools, people from multiple races came up with their families.
“I, for one, am very proud that our district employs people of every nationality, every race, every background, every religion. We are very blessed, Cunningham said. “To me, that is diversity. That is inclusion. That is equity. Not a piece of paper.”
She said the proclamations don’t do as much as having a teacher, administrator or staff member who looks like or speaks like a student.
“I personally don’t view it as one group against another group,” Cunningham continued. “I’m not into what I call the nonsense. To me, that’s nonsense, guys. We’re all human beings. So I feel we need to do what’s right. And I feel that we should do away with proclamations because I feel that every child can be loved and nurtured.”
She agreed with Allen’s proposal to recognize individual students’ or groups’ achievements.
“My goodness, there’s always a few minutes at the beginning of our meetings — y’all have been here — to take the time, just like we recognize business partners,” she said. “What is more important than recognizing a few of our kids for something? … It may be they’re president of a club, a Pride club, at one of the schools. Whatever it is, if we need to help a child to become better at what they do, and give them the recognition that they are a human being in our eyes, then we owe it (to them) to do that.”
Board Member Justin Sharpless said he read the state statute that deals with city proclamations.
“A municipality should be the place that proclamations are given,” Sharpless said. “This isn’t about recognizing or not recognizing a group. It’s about the proper placement. … We do not need proclamations to recognize students and staff. We can already do this during the special recognition time at our board meetings.”
School Board member Kay Fields, who has served the longest on the panel, said she values proclamations because she learns something from them.
“There are so many ways to embrace differences and understand that we might not all agree, but at the end of the day, we’re supposed to be a reflection of every student that we serve in our school district,” Fields said. “We’re supposed to be and so I don’t understand how having a proclamation takes away from learning. As a matter of fact, it helps the students to learn, in my opinion.”
An email from Winter Haven 9-12 member Royal Brown III was sent to all School Board members Wednesday.
“Many thanks to the 52+ members of WH 912, CDF, REC, RLC and/or other God, County, Family-loving patriots who came to the School Board Meeting last night; those who sent emails in advance and those who stood up and spoke out against Proclamations (which should insure no more Pride + LGBTQxyz proclamations by the PCPS School Board,” Brown wrote.
SEND CORRECTIONS, questions, feedback or news tips: email@example.com