It’s probably safe to say this was the craziest meeting in Flagler politics this year. After a year that’s included Milissa Holland being (maybe) rushed at the dais, the entire Board chambers being cleared while deliberating mask mandates, and Council members vowing to fire contracted city staff, what transpired at Tuesday night’s School Board meeting was more turbulent than them all.
No action was taken at Tuesday’s meeting to either remove or uphold the four books in question in school libraries. If you’re not familiar with the saga leading up to this meeting, read AskFlagler’s full breakdown of the events so far: A Full Breakdown of Jill Woolbright’s Efforts to Remove ‘All Boys Aren’t Blue’ From School Libraries.
Before the Meeting
The night’s proceedings started before the Board meeting even began. By around 4:45 pm, there were already dueling groups of protestors outside the Government Services Building, each with opposite stances on whether All Boys Aren’t Blue – and three other books – should remain in Flagler school libraries or be removed. By the time everyone packed up and went home, it was 11:42 pm. An approximately seven hour ordeal.
Outside, two groups had assembled to advocate for their stances. One was a student-led demonstration led by Jack Petocz, a 17 year-old high school student who made headlines last year for being censured by Janet McDonald as he spoke at a Board meeting criticizing her public political stances. The other side was determined to keep a book out of schools which they saw to be pornography. The group’s de-facto emcee appeared to be Charlene Cothran, a reverend who’s spoken of leaving a life of gay activism for almost 30 years.
Both groups had amplification. Cothran spoke into a megaphone, while the students’ side had a microphone and an entire sound system. The two were divided by the roadway in front of the building, which on a handful of occasions would be crossed by one member or another to try and get in the other side’s faces. A Bunnell Police Department or Flagler Sheriff’s Office deputy would typically break up these heated confrontations quickly. There were no recorded incidents of physical aggression from either side.
Still, there was considerable verbal accosting from both sides at each other. Those against the book were at times called homophobic and racist (the author is a black, queer person) while those for it were called pedophiles, and in the case of some high school students, faggots.
When the business meeting went underway, the entire room was filled to capacity. Every seat was occupied, and the standing room was as full as it could possibly be. Additionally a crowd had gathered outside the double doors, watching the live feed and audio on FCTV.
In what would normally be the news of the day absent this sort of fiery topic, Chair and Vice Chair Trevor Tucker and Colleen Conklin were maintained in their posts. Tucker’s renewal of the Chair position was a unanimous 5-0 vote, while Conklin stayed Vice Chair by a 3-2 decision. Jill Woolbright was nominated by Janet McDonald, and also voted for herself.
A few other business items were on the agenda before public comments began. A group of kids who’ve battled cancer were brought forth to be honored, after having been driven away at a previous meeting by anti-mask mandate protestors (the kids wore masks in observance of their compromised immune systems). Roger Tangney of Flagler Palm Coast High School recognized three extraordinary young men as recipients of the National Merit Scholarship.
Once the minutes and agenda of the meeting were given final adjustments and approval, public comments began.
During the Meeting
We’ll get it right out of the way now: there were a staggering 79 public commenters in Tuesday’s meeting. Without having a running list on-hand, it’s safe to assume that Janet McDonald’s assumption that this number was a record, is probably accurate. The meeting ran for 5 hours and 42 minutes. By the time the meeting wrapped up, the vast majority of the once massive crowd had already gone home.
The balance of public comments between those for and against the book was relatively close, though commenters against a book likely had the majority by around ten or so (it was tricky to run a precise tally when some were indirect in how they addressed the issue). Another 20 or so commenters implored the Board to restore the word ‘equity’ to the district’s mission statement, after it was previously removed at a past meeting.
Commenter Terry Kauthe likened All Boys Aren’t Blue to the launch of Hustler Magazine in the 1970’s, saying the author’s description of sexual encounters exceeded the level of obscenity that the outwardly pornographic magazine offered at that time. The categorization of the book as being a work of pornography was a common assessment by those who rallied to get it removed from school libraries.
Abbey Cooke was another memorable commenter, known to the community as a teacher and prominent LGBTQ+ activist. Cooke referenced Jill Woolbright’s Christian faith and read a passage from the Bible which describes the considerable girth of an individual’s genitals (Ezekiel 23:20). As she began reading the verse, a huge objection erupted from the crowd.
For context: Chairman Tucker has specified early in the meeting that commenters were not allowed to directly quote the explicit portions of All Boys Aren’t Blue that were causing uproar; his reasoning was that regardless of whether high schoolers should read the book, there were elementary school students both in attendance and watching the live stream. Tucker shut down Cooke’s reading of the Bible as he did multiple times when commenters attempted to quote All Boys Aren’t Blue.
One man took the podium to say that if someone had given his child material like the book in question, he’d “beat the teeth out of the back of their head.” Another said that if the School Board didn’t remove the books, he was prepared to act “by any means necessary.”
Overall though, the amount of commenters who crossed the line from impassioned to aggressive was a good bit lower than it was at the mask mandate meetings. The Board didn’t have to clear the dais, though Tucker came very close to doing so when one commenter refused to yield from reading a graphic portion of the book. That person was the only one escorted out of the room by Flagler Sheriff’s deputies.
In one of the more humorous comments on the evening, commenter Charles Bowman had Board Attorney Kristy Gavin announce that he was next up, with the subject of ‘there are burgers in the back of the room’. Bowman stood up from one of the back tables and informed Gavin that he did not in fact wish to speak, but merely wanted Gavin to announce that he and wife Jessico had purchased fast food for the room.
Speaking of Gavin, the Board Attorney (who announced the name and topic of each speaker) came under fire from several commenters Tuesday night. She even had to announce the topic ‘Fire Kristy Gavin’ at one point. Speaker Leslie Johnson, who’s brought up her desires to see Gavin dismissed at multiple meetings before, again made that point on Tuesday.
A few candidates for office appeared to make comment as well, namely Courtney VandeBunte (Flagler School Board), Sims Jones (Palm Coast City Council), Luis Miguel (U.S. Senate), and Timothy Sharp (Florida State House). VandeBunte was also at the forefront of the demonstrations outside before the meeting, at one point putting her own body between Reverend Cothran and a group of students who she appeared to be walking toward.
One-time Board candidate Randall Bertrand had a unique angle in his comments: if Board members were displeased with what was said about them on social media, he felt they should resign. He argued that public citizens endured the same thing but were not paid for their trouble.
There was certainly a communication divide between passionate supporters on either side of the issue. Many students speaking accused parents of perpetuating censorship, racism, and bigotry in their efforts to do away with All Boys Aren’t Blue. A few of those parents pleaded with the students that they had no quarrel with the black or LGBTQ+ communities, but they merely felt George Johnson’s writing constituted pornography.
There was, of course, still homophobic and abusive behavior perpetuated toward students. The word “faggot” was used, as were a myriad of other slurs and attacks on other protestors.
Closing the Meeting
Once other business was taken care of, the Board got its chance to make closing comments before adjourning. This would be the last time the Board had unlimited time to comment, before a rule that goes into effect at the next meeting limits them to five minutes.
Colleen Conklin apologized to the community for the recent nature of School Board meetings, “because this Board has been involved in nonstop drama.” Conklin rebuked individuals who’d invited the Three Percenters, a far-right anti-government group whose logo has shown up on attendees’ sleeves at several government meetings in recent memory. A few in the crowd attempted to verbally interject when Conklin made these assertions, but her facts are accurate: there was at least one Three Percenter at Tuesday’s meeting.
In closing her remarks, Conklin played a video message from George M. Johnson, which he’d recorded to be played at the Board meeting. Though the video played in its entirety, several attendees attempted to shout over Johnson’s message, and Janet McDonald excused herself to the side of the room until it concluded.
Cheryl Massaro publicly expressed her change of heart on the word ‘equity’, stating she now supports it being returned to the district’s mission statement and imploring the Board to revisit the issue.
Jill Woolbright first asked for Board members to limit their comments to their own remarks, certainly a thinly veiled criticism of Conklin’s choice to play Johnson’s words. She then spoke for almost half an hour, giving an account of the entire story from her side of things. Woolbright spoke about experiences of abuse from her own formative years, and did in part attempt to extend a symbolic olive branch to Johnson. She was also sharply critical of FlaglerLive’s reporting on the story, and took time to defend her decision to file a criminal report with the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office.
The audio of Woolbright’s full remarks can be heard below:
For now, the fate of All Boys Aren’t Blue, Stamped, Speak, and The Hate U Give is still in the air. More news later on when the School Board will make a permanent decision.
Note: the decision to use the word ‘faggot’ without censorship was made with input and encouragement from several LGBTQ+ voices, including some at the meeting on Tuesday. The intent is to convey the full impact of the word as it was used against Flagler students.