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Florida teacher under state investigation for showing 5th graders a Disney movie
After a long day of standardized testing, Florida fifth-grade teacher Jenna Barbee decided the students needed a break. She had the students watch a Disney movie, Strange World. Now, Barbee, a first-year teacher in Hernando County is being subject to a "misconduct" investigation by the Florida Department of Education.
Strange World was released in 2022. It follows a family of explorers who must work together to "to hunt down whatever is killing their town's power-providing plants." According to Common Sense Media, a non-profit group that evaluates books and films for children, it is suitable for kids as young as 8. There is no sexual content. Common Sense Media notes that the parents of the main character, Ethan, "embrace throughout the movie in a brief but loving manner." Ethan "expresses a romantic interest in his crush, Diazo, on a few occasions but is only seen speaking to him once." Barbee said she showed the movie because it is about earth and "that's our current lesson in science."
The fact that Ethan identifies as LGBTQ prompted a complaint from parent and school board member Shannon Rodriguez. "It is not a teacher’s job to impose their beliefs upon a child: religious, sexual orientation, gender identity, any of the above," Rodriguez said during a May 9 school board meeting. "But allowing movies such as this assist teachers in opening a door, and please hear me, they assist teachers in opening a door for conversations that have no place in our classrooms." Rodriguez said she was "not going to stand by and allow this minority to infiltrate our schools" because "God did put me here."
Rodriguez is a member of Moms for Liberty, a right-wing group aggressively seeking to ban books with LGBTQ characters and otherwise prohibit schools from acknowledging the existence of LGBTQ people.
According to correspondence from Hernando County schools, provided to Popular Information by the Florida Freedom to Read Project (FFRP), Rodriguez did not file a written complaint. She simply contacted the school principal and informed her that Strange World was shown.
Shortly after Rodriguez's call, Barbee received a letter from the Florida Department of Education. The letter said that the Florida Department of Education determined that "an investigation is warranted into allegations that you engaged in inappropriate conduct." The department would be looking into the "alleged misconduct" and "determine if disciplinary actions should be pursued."
The misconduct investigation, which according to Barbee includes interrogation of individual fifth grade students, is taking place even though all the fifth grade parents, including Rodriguez, signed a permission slip allowing their children to watch PG movies at school. Popular Information obtained a copy of the permission slips via FFRP. This is the permission slip that was distributed to parents in Barbee's class:
Rodriguez's child had a different homeroom teacher, but signed a similar permission slip:
Despite signing the permission slip, Rodriguez accused Barbee at the May 9 school board meeting of "showing a PG movie without approval." Rodriguez said the "victims" of Barbee's conduct were "our children." She accused Barbee of imposing "her beliefs" on students. Rodriguez said it was "her job" to "teach my child about the birds and the bees" — a topic that is not broached in Strange World. Nevertheless, she said Barbee "stripped the innocence of my 10 year old."
While the investigation is ongoing, Barbee's school has already determined the movie was inappropriate. The school sent an announcement to all parents in the class assuring them that "in the future" Strange World "will not be shown" because "parts of the story involves a male character having and expressing feelings for another male character." The announcement also informed parents that the administration is "currently reviewing the matter to see if further corrective action is required."
In 2021, Florida passed the Parental Rights In Education Act, also known as "Don't Say Gay," which prohibits "[c]lassroom instruction by school personnel or third parties on sexual orientation or gender identity…in kindergarten through grade 3." The law also prohibits instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity for older student that is "not age appropriate or developmentally appropriate."
Showing students a movie that includes an LGBTQ is not "classroom instruction" on "sexual orientation or gender identity." And even if it was, Barbee's students are fifth graders and can receive such instruction if it is age appropriate. A PG-rated movie is appropriate for 10- and 11-year-olds.
On April 19, 2023, the Florida Department of Education expanded the application of the prohibition on classroom instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity to all grades. But the new rule does not go into effect until May 23.
The true scope of "Don't Say Gay"
After signing the Parental Rights In Education Act into law, DeSantis angrily accused the media of promoting a "false narrative," insisting the bill does not prohibit mentioning LGBTQ people in Florida schools.
According to DeSantis, the scope of the bill is limited and only prohibits "sexual instruction" directed at young students. "When you actually look at the bill and it says 'no sexual instruction to kids pre-K through three,' how many parents want their kids to have transgenderism or something injected into classroom instruction?" DeSantis said. "It's basically saying for our younger students, do you really want them being taught about sex? And this is any sexual stuff."
Conservative media outlets echoed DeSantis' argument. The Wall Street Journal editorial board, for example, argued the law would have "no immediate effect" because "sexual orientation and gender identity is not something that is being taught in grades K-3." The editorial board said the bill was limited to "classroom instruction.”
But despite these claims, since the passage of the law, activists like Rodriguez are insisting on the erasure of LGTBQ people from all classroom materials and discussions. And the Florida Department of Education is assisting these efforts by launching a misconduct investigation into a teacher that showed a movie to fifth graders that had an LGBTQ character.
Further, as Popular Information previously reported, several Florida schools have already removed books with LGBTQ characters from their libraries, citing the Parental Rights in Education Act. Rodriguez has also pushed to remove books, which she described as "smut" and "porn," from school libraries. Rodriguez said if the school board didn't act to remove the books, "I will go into the libraries myself and pull them out myself."