Author’s Note: This is intended to be a somewhat editorialized piece. While no facts are presented with bias or slant, I made decisions to write this from the standpoint of what I’ve witnessed personally in addition to what’s documented on paper. For the sake of being honest and transparent, I’m not going to pretend my personal experiences, particularly at the 11/6/21 School Board meeting, weren’t in my mind when writing this article. If you’re looking for more of the cut and dry reporting I pride myself on, I’ve covered this issue ad nauseum from that standpoint. Just search ‘school board’ in our search bar and you’ll find quite a bit of it.
~ Chris Gollon
PALM COAST – 17 year-old Jack Petocz wasted no time getting started as an activist. He’s not even voting age, and he’s already assembling youth voter coalitions. Petocz has had an incredibly eventful time in the political sphere for someone still in high school.
Though it should be noted that Petocz isn’t just getting a lot done for his age – he’s one of the most influential community leaders in Flagler County, period. He’s become the face of the youth-driven effort to keep controversial books in the libraries of Flagler schools. And while he’s long been well-known in the community, Petocz is making a slightly bigger splash. How’s the New York Times for an upgrade?
Petocz said he was surprised when the Times reached out to him, but from an outside perspective it’s not surprising at all. The issue of school districts removing controversial books from library shelves is increasingly at the forefront of national attention, and one of the most noteworthy cases was right here in Flagler County. Late last year, School Board member Jill Woolbright rallied to have four books removed from libraries, most notably ‘All Boys Aren’t Blue’, a memoir by black queer nonbinary author George M. Johnson. The four books were singled out for potentially mature content, whether racial or sexual. Woolbright even went as far as to file a criminal complaint against Superintendent Cathy Mittelstadt for the continued presence of the four books, days after Mittelstadt had told Woolbright she’d be investigating herself.
Rewinding a bit, Petocz got his start in activism back in 2020, over an entirely separate issue. Board member Janet McDonald, then the Chairperson, made a series of tweets and retweets which many took exception to. Statements retweeted by McDonald included “they’re brainwashing your children in public schools”, “it’s easier to come out as gay than to come out as a Trump supporter”, and “Covid-19 is as much a pandemic as 3 chihuahuas are a pack of ferocious man-eating dogs. This event was a planned, politically motivated attempt to take control of the government.” These are all statements which McDonald stands by to this day.
Petocz spoke at a School Board meeting to voice his displeasure with McDonald’s retweets. Chair McDonald cut short Petocz’s remarks when he mentioned her by name, citing Board conduct rules. It was later determined that the rules forbade the naming of school employees and students in public comments, not Board members. McDonald’s handling of Petocz was criticized by Board members Colleen Conklin and Andy Dance, now a County Commissioner. Once tensions cooled down, Petocz was allowed to finish his statement with McDonald’s name stricken from the wording.
Back to the present. The book ban issue came to a head at a November 16th School Board meeting, when opposing demonstrators clashed outside the building and during the meeting’s public comments. The group of students and like-minded parents and teachers was in large part led by Petocz. He and his classmates endured profane heckling from out-of-county attendees, some of whom identified with extremist groups like The Three Percenters. Under-18 members of the group had been called ‘faggot’, ‘pedophile’, and been taunted with sexually-charged threats.
The next phase of Petocz’s efforts came when the School Board found itself divided on whether, or how, to condemn what had taken place. Board member Cheryl Massaro drafted a statement for the Board to condemn the abuse Petocz and his group had taken, which was objected to by Woolbright and McDonald. Woolbright argued that despicable language had come from both groups at the November 16th meeting. While both groups had megaphones and engaged in less-than-polite characterizations of one another, insults to the level of slurs were directed from the against-the-book crowd to the for-the-book crowd. No eyewitnesses (Woolbright was inside the chambers while the protests went on) or documented video have shown slurs or violently sexual language in the other direction. Many on the against-the-book side acted rationally and politely, and shouldn’t be lumped in with those who didn’t. But the ones who didn’t, went further and acted with greater aggression than those on the for-the-book side.
On Tuesday night, Petocz is recording an interview for ABC News’ NightLine. More and more national news outlets are picking up the issue of book banning, and it’s hard to tell that story in modern times without mentioning him. ‘All Boys Aren’t Blue’ is set to remain in Flagler school libraries, subject to a certain level of parental discretion. In the state of Florida, legislation is advancing to increasingly limit the scope of what racial and social education can cover, in some cases standing to exclude passages covering the history of oppression against racial minorities and the LGBTQ+ community. It’s the battleground in which students like Jack Petocz venture to make their mark to preserve a detailed and brutal history of social struggles in America, with or without the discomfort.