Proponents of a Pride proclamation gathered in the School Board chambers on Tuesday, June 13, 2023. | Kimberly C. Moore, LkldNow

More than 150 people from Polk County’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer community and their allies packed into the School Board chambers Tuesday night to express support for a Pride Month proclamation that was no longer on the agenda.

A handful of conservatives who opposed the proclamation were also in the audience.

Superintendent Frederick Heid addressed the crowd at the beginning of the three-hour-and-fifteen-minute meeting to explain why he removed the proclamation, which has been issued routinely each June for the past several years at the request of Polk Pride.

“The recommendation is not to pull and eliminate the Pride proclamation altogether. The recommendation is to move it to October to allow us an adequate time to address and create a proper procedure for the submission, review, modification and approval of proclamations going forward,” Heid said.

He explained that, currently, there is no formal policy in place within Polk County Public Schools – or any district in Florida that he could find – for how to evaluate requests for proclamations.

“We were not contacted by any group and nor was there a request to remove it,” he said. “I simply did it as a matter of procedure and policy, in fairness to everyone else.”

County Citizens Defending Freedom had posted a note online, saying “thanks to a few brave people, this was removed.” It also encouraged members to thank the School Board, although it was Heid who removed it from the agenda.

Heid noted that while proclamations have been issued for different things in recent years, it has been sporadic and many “worthy” causes have not been recognized at all. For instance, over the past five years, the Polk County School District has issued proclamations for:

  • 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

Some issues have not been recognized at all by the district, including Women’s History Month, Autism Acceptance Month, Latin-American History Month, Asian Pacific Heritage Month, Native American Heritage Month, Mental Health Awareness Month and National Veterans and Military Families Month.

In 2021, Sarah Fortney, the first openly gay Polk County School Board member, read the Pride Month proclamation, with about half a dozen students on hand to accept it.  As Fortney read the proclamation, a group of CCDF and Winter Haven 9-12 members, both socially conservative activist groups, stood up and turned their backs to the students. 

Last year, longtime School Board member Kay Fields read the proclamation without incident.

During board member remarks Tuesday, Fields said she would have gladly read it again this year, noting that in the past, the Board used to have to approve of proclamations being read, but then went to a system of simply presenting them because of controversial topics like Pride.

“I say that God expects us to love everybody.  And so, no matter what, I’m going to do what I’m supposed to do because I’m trying to go to heaven,” Fields said, looking at Heid. “I look forward to everyone understanding that it’s OK to disagree. You and I disagree a lot. We agree to disagree with respect.”

School Board member Lisa Miller also spoke in support of all students, noting that her son, Michael, is autistic and might be seen by some as different and not included. She gave the first ever Michael Miller Award this year to Lily Fields, a Lake Gibson High School student who Miller said tried to be friends with everyone and went out of her way to make sure kids of all abilities and backgrounds feel welcome.

“It was Lily and I think we have a lot of Lilys in this district,” Miller said. “I appreciate what Ms. Fields said. You know, I hate to say it, it shouldn’t take God to tell us, or the government, it should be that’s what we do. We love every kid in this district and … they will feel safe when they are with us. And I appreciate you coming out tonight.”

She pointed out that she’s glad the School Board is a fairly cohesive body and one that is “not in chaos,” not trying to fire the superintendent like Escambia and Broward counties have done and Duval County is attempting to do. Gov. Ron DeSantis is also threatening to fire the Leon County Schools superintendent over his opposition to the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” law, which forbids teachers from discussing sexuality and gender identity with students.

The final 90 minutes of the meeting was taken up by public comments about the proclamation and books that CCDF and Winter Haven 9-12 members want removed from school libraries, along with an incident at Blake Academy.

Kerri McCoy, the vice president of Polk Pride, said she did not have a problem with the proclamation being moved to October during LGBTQ History Month because more students, staff and community members would be able to attend the meeting.

“Mr. Heid, I know there doesn’t seem to be a right and moral wrong here and I would hate to be in your shoes this evening because I’m sure you’re going to hear exactly what people think about this whole issue here tonight,” McCoy said. “But personally, … I want to thank you for what you do, not just for our LGBTQ+ students, but for all the students of Polk County and I thank the board as well.”

Former PCPS School Board member Sarah Fortney, the first openly gay member of the panel, waves a rainbow flag before the start of the June 13, 2023, meeting. | Kimberly C. Moore, LkldNow

Former School Board member Sarah Fortney spoke and thanked all those who attended the meeting to show support for a vulnerable group of students.

“The fact remains we’re here. We’re queer. Get used to it. Because we’re not going anywhere,” Fortney declared. “I am, however, very troubled about the right-wing extremist attacks and the removal of … diversity, equity and inclusion. Our county sometimes lacks support, much like the supposed delay in the Pride proclamation. And that leads to an unequal playing field for our various cultures, backgrounds, races and beliefs in public education. What’s the true agenda? Forced ignorance, self-censorship, elimination of cultural diversity and true history, … book banning and curriculum manipulation.”

She invited everyone on the board to attend this Saturday’s Pride in the Park in Lakeland’s Munn Park to show support. “Prove you do, in fact, stand with all staff, students and communities,” Fortney challenged.

Several speakers talked about the increased rate of suicides among LGBTQ students – not because of their sexuality but because of the rejection, bullying and even violence they face from other students and even some adults in the community.

Bob Nickell, a middle school teacher at Boone Middle School in Haines City, derided County Commissioner Neil Combee for saying, “We shouldn’t be adopting resolutions regarding lifestyle choices.”

Nickell said it was not a choice anyone would make. He cited the murder of 25-year-old Ryan Skipper in Polk County in 2007. Joseph Bearden and William Brown were found guilty of murdering Skipper. Witnesses testified they had made homophobic remarks about Skipper, who was gay.

“Ryan Skipper didn’t choose to be gay. He didn’t choose to be stabbed 20 times and have his throat slit before his body was dumped on the side of the road in Wahneta,” Nickell said, adding that Skipper had graduated from Winter Haven High School, was a student at Travis Vocational Technical School and attended Grace Lutheran Church, where he had been an altar boy.

“Ryan Skipper was a true Christian. Not the ones who use the Bible to hide their bigotry. Moving the Pride proclamation from the agenda this month is a disservice to the legacy of Ryan Skipper.”

Hunter Branstner, the vice president of the Polk County Young Republicans, said there needs to be a conversation about what “truly needs a proclamation” by the School Board.

“This LGBTQ alphabet mafia agenda and the sexualization of our kids does not belong in our schools,” he said. “The Florida Legislature has made sure schools don’t teach the sexualization of students and their peers at young ages.”

He said schools should be solely focused on education, including science, technology, engineering and math classes, Advanced Placement courses, college dual enrollment, and academies for trade-school-focused students.

“We can respect each other, we can respect the other students, other people’s life choices,” he said. “It doesn’t mean the School Board has to back all that. Sexualization of students never, ever, ever should be in our schools. That’s for parents and students to decide on their own time, not be put out by our School Board. Please get this out of our schools.”

Kristin Bradley Burke, a PCPS teacher, said that – while she feels Heid is one of the best superintendents Polk has had in a long time – she disagrees with him pulling the proclamation.

“I make sure that all students feel safe, seen and represented in my classroom,” Bradley Burke said. “And I feel it is not too much to ask that they receive the same treatment from their superintendent and their School Board … by removing this proclamation, you have caused this community to doubt your support when they need your solidarity and support now more than ever.”

Then Bradley Burke used the remainder of her time to read last year’s proclamation.

Spike Poma said he is a graduate of a Polk County public school and described himself as an intersex trans gay man.

“When I went to school, there was not really any representation. There was no support for me at that time,” Poma said. “And I know what it is like to be verbally and physically harmed by people not showing support or representation.”

Heid said he will discuss the proclamation policy with School Board members at their July meeting.

“It’s simply about making sure that we can move forward with a process and procedure that makes sense, and is legally binding and again allows us to ensure that proclamations are reflective of our core values and beliefs and support all of our students and community members equally,” Heid said.

In other comments, Richard Nutt and Deborah Boblitz both read from books they called pornographic and called for their removal from Polk County Public Schools libraries. 

Nutt read from “All Boys Aren’t Blue, A Memoir-Manifesto” by George Johnson, which involves homosexuality.

“It was the first time I’d ever touched a penis that wasn’t my own,” Nutt read. “I knew what was happening wasn’t supposed to happen because it wasn’t supposed to do those things with cousins.”

Nutt said any person distributing this book to  minors is violating state statute and committing a third-degree felony. His remarks were met with boos by the LGBTQ members of the audience, to which School Board Chairman Sarah Beth Wyatt slammed down her gavel and said there would be no booing.

“I will end this meeting right now,” she warned.

Boblitz read from the book “Identical” by Ellen Hopkins, which details the molestation of a 10-year-old girl and her sister by their father.

“It’s obvious that this child is being traumatized with sexual assaults throughout this book that started at a young age with her father,” Boblitz said. “So how can any competent educator think that this is not harmful to minors?”

Florida law defines pornography or obscene materials as material that:

  • The average person applying contemporary community standards … would find that the material, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest.
  • Depicts or describes sexual conduct in a patently offensive way.
  • Taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.

CCDF last year filed complaints against 16 books found in PCPS libraries.  After a lengthy review process by teachers, counselors, students, and members of the community, including CCDF, all 16 books were returned to library shelves at age-appropriate levels.

As Boblitz was walking away from the podium, Bonnie Patterson-James, an LGBTQ activist, tried to put a pair of new, clean, women’s underwear in Boblitz’s tote bag.  Boblitz threw the underwear back at Patterson James. Both women were ordered to leave the meeting room after yelling at each other.

Patterson-James said in an email to LkldNow that the underwear had phrases on them, including “Parents Know Their Children Best” “Shame On You!”  and, perhaps, “Panty Police!”

“I have a bag of panties premade,” she said in the email. “Why panties? Why do I continue to deliver pantygrams? Maybe because feminists aren’t burning bras anymore, we’re dropping panties. For all their talk about groomers, the GOP and extremists are the one’s obsessed with what’s in our panties!” 

Patterson-James was arrested following a recent pro-life event for throwing a pair of panties, which lightly hit a Polk County Sheriff’s Deputy. She was originally charged with assaulting a law enforcement officer. However, a document provided by the State Attorney’s Office shows the charge was reduced to a misdemeanor of attempting to disturb a lawful assembly.

This story has been updated to include Patterson-James’ comments.

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Kimberly C. Moore, who grew up in Lakeland, has been a print, broadcast and multimedia journalist for more than 30 years. Before coming to LkldNow in the spring of 2022, she was a reporter for four years with The Ledger, first covering Lakeland City Hall and then Polk County schools. She is the author of “Star Crossed: The Story of Astronaut Lisa Nowak," published by University Press of Florida. Reach her at or 863-272-9250.

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