‘This is our future’: UCF students join statewide student protest of DeSantis’ ‘dystopian’ education policies

Orlando students join statewide protest against Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ education policies.

click to enlarge ‘This is our future’: UCF students join statewide student protest of DeSantis’ ‘dystopian’ education policies (2)
Photo via Deanna Ferrante

Students at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, the state’s largest public university by enrollment, joined a statewide walkout on Thursday in protest of education policies and directives prioritized by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis that critics say are having chilling effects.

Student walkouts were planned for Thursday between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. at at least nine colleges, high schools and universities in Florida, according to Students for Freedom, a newly created coalition of student organizations, and Dream Defenders, a racial justice organization formed in the wake of the fatal shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford in 2012.

“We’re standing up against this,” said Olivia Solomon, a student organizer with UCF’s March for Our Lives chapter, who helped organize the UCF walkout Thursday. “We’re fighting for our faculty, for our education, and for the rights of trans students.”

Policies recently enacted by the state, including the “Stop WOKE” Act — restricting classroom discussion on racism and other race-related concepts — and the “Parental Rights in Education” bill — restricting classroom discussion on sexuality and gender identity in K-12 classes — have chilled teachers and faculty in Florida schools, creating an environment of confusion, fear and frustration among educators and students alike. A Florida judge described Stop WOKE, aka the “Individual Freedom” bill, as “positively dystopian.”

DeSantis, a rumored 2024 presidential candidate who’s prioritized a litany of attacks on Florida’s higher education system for political advantage, has also directed the state to launch a probe into transgender healthcare services provided by universities.

His administration moved to eliminate, then forced the watering-down of an AP African American history course; has taken aim at diversity and inclusivity programs in higher ed; and launched a hostile takeover of the New College, a progressive liberal arts college in Sarasota, by appointing a bunch of conservatives to its board of trustees (looks like that’s going well).

“Ron DeSantis has been relentless in his attacks on Florida’s education system, creating hostile classroom environments that target Black, brown, Hispanic, and LGBTQ+ students for simply existing,” Maxwell Frost, Orlando’s newly elected Congressman, told Teen Vogue magazine (which has emerged in recent years as a purveyor of political and news reportage alongside its fashion coverage) about today’s demonstration. “We have no choice but to use our collective power to make sure DeSantis and his lapdogs at the Department of Education and on the Board of Trustees know that they need to keep their hateful politics out of our schools.”

Dream Defenders, one of the groups involved in the statewide day of action, is using the hashtag #CantBanUs to promote the action, in reference to DeSantis’ manufactured war against critical race theory (CRT) and attempts to undermine the teaching of Black history.

“He’s banning books and flags in classrooms everywhere. He’s making sure our history isn’t getting taught. He’s getting rid of teachers, professors and faculty that look like us and support us. He and his people want public schools to be defunded and are making our children less safe every day,” the group wrote in a Day of Action Toolkit. “He’s made it harder to protest and harder to vote. All while teachers, parents and students are struggling to make ends meet, with no help from the person running the state.”

Solomon, the UCF student, told Orlando Weekly she sees the effects of these policies in classrooms every day on faculty. “They’re afraid to be able to teach what they want to. They’re afraid to put things on their syllabus in the fear that they’re going to be fired, and they shouldn't have to be,” the 21 year-old student of political science, writing and rhetoric.

Faculty all across the country affiliated with the American Council of Learned Societies have signed statements in solidarity with their colleagues in Florida. The American Association of University Professors, a nonprofit membership association, has called DeSantis’ attacks on diversity programs “extremely dangerous.”

One of Florida’s faculty unions, however, cautioned faculty against joining the walkout today, at least if they were scheduled to teach. Doing so could be considered a “strike” under Florida law. That law, passed shortly after thousands of Florida teachers organized the nation’s first statewide teachers' strike in 1968, prohibits public sector workers, including teachers and higher education faculty, from striking or walking off the job.

In the free state of Florida, participation by on-duty faculty could lead to their termination.

The United Faculty of Florida, a labor union that represents 25,000 full-time faculty and 8,000 graduate assistants across Florida’s university and college systems, nonetheless expressed appreciation for the student organizations leading Thursday’s demonstration.

The union said in a statement, shared with Students for Freedom, that it was “thrilled” to support the statewide walkout organized by Stand for Freedom, Dream Defenders and the Florida College Democrats.

“As a historian, I’m in heaven right now,” Paul Ortiz, a University of Florida professor who’s president of his UFF chapter, told the Tampa Bay Times. “When students are telling me they’re protesting for the right to learn more, this is the moment I’ve waited for my whole life.”

“This is our education. This is our Florida. This is our future.”

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Earlier this month, the UCF student government also passed a resolution opposing Florida’s “Stop WOKE Act,” arguing that it restricts academic freedom.

“People have heard from the politicians who villainized us, made us out to be quote-unquote ‘indoctrinators,’” Dr. Robert Cassanello, a history professor, plaintiff in a lawsuit against the Stop WOKE Act, and president of the United Faculty of Florida at UCF told students at the time. “We've heard from the professors this has impacted, and I really haven't heard from the students that this affects. And I think we need to hear from you, because there are lawmakers in Tallahassee who seem to think that you all have fragile minds, and you can't think for yourself.”

Students elsewhere in the state have also organized protests against the state's attacks on transgender healthcare. Students at Rollins College, a private college in Winter Park near Orlando, planned a walkout today in solidarity with their peers.

And this is nothing new. Florida has a rich history of protest against racism in higher education. You know what they say about history repeating itself.

According to Solomon, students want their universities to know that they’re not planning to just walk out for an hour and to then go away. They demand action.

“UCF cannot stand by and — even though they’re afraid, too — they can’t just bow to our governor,” said Solomon. “This is our education. This is our Florida. This is our future.”

UPDATED 2/26: To clarify the nature of Travyon Martin's death.

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McKenna Schueler

News reporter for Orlando Weekly, with a focus on state and local government, workers' rights, and housing issues. Previously worked for WMNF Radio in Tampa. You can find her bylines in Creative Loafing Tampa Bay, In These Times, Strikewave, and Facing South among other publications.
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