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“Don’t Say Gay” student leader says school stopping run for student leadership

Jack Petocz organized a state-wide student protest against Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill & annoyed administrators suspended him

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Jack Petocz (Center) at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government earlier this Spring (Courtesy of Jack Petocz/Facebook)

Jack Petocz, a Flagler Palm Coast High School junior, organized a state-wide student protest against Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill this past March, and at his school, annoyed administrators suspended him.

On Tuesday, Petocz said that the school’s disciplinary action is now preventing him from running for senior class president.

“When I returned, the administration assured me that no further disciplinary action would be taken. A month later, they broke this verbal agreement and placed a level 3 referral on my record. Now, due to this high level of discipline, I am being prevented from running for senior class president. I am continuing to be punished for standing up for my identity and against widespread hatred.”

The suspension over the student walkout became a viral moment that propelled the 17-year-old into the national spotlight and into the national discourse over a spate of harsh laws targeting the LGBTQ+ community.

17-year-old Cameron Driggers, a student LGBTQ+ activist-organizer of the group Recall Flagler County School Board and co-leader of the walk-out, his friend’s suspension inspired him to create a petition on Change.org to pressure Flagler Palm Coast High School Principal Greg Schwartz to rescind his seemingly arbitrary decision to suspend Petocz.

One protest at the school over its suspension of Petocz brought together a grizzled and proud Out gay U.S. Marine Corps veteran accompanied by his fellow vets, who alongside with Driggers and the other young adolescent activists protested in a rally in front of the school at the same time Petocz and his father were inside meeting with Flagler Palm Coast High School Principal Greg Schwartz, hoping to get him to rescind his seemingly arbitrary decision to suspend Petocz.

Jack Petocz (with bullhorn) leads Flagler Palm Coast High School protest against DSG bill (Photo by Alysa Vidal)

Later on during the day Driggers posted to the Change.org petition the news that Principal Schwartz had backed off.

“Recall FCSB is pleased to announce that Jack’s suspension has ended and he is back on-campus. We are grateful for the thousands of people around the globe that shared, tweeted and protested in support of Jack, the organizer behind the state-wide Don’t Say Gay Walkout. Over 7500 signatures were collected on a condemnation of Principal Greg Schwartz’ conduct last Thursday. With Jack back on campus, Recall FCSB will continue to empower student leaders in and out of school,” Driggers wrote.

Principal Schwartz also committed to removing the ‘disciplinary action’ from Petocz’s school record.

On Tuesday, Petocz announced that Principal Schwartz and other school officials are barring him from running for an elected student office.

In response to the news, PEN America issued the following statement from Jonathan Friedman, director of the Free Expression and Education program:

“By going back on their word and imposing a red mark on Jack Petocz’s disciplinary record, the Flagler Palm Coast High School administration appears bent on retaliating against him for organizing the walkout against the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill. This is unconscionable. Jack exercised his right to protest as a citizen, and he led the walkout with the school’s approval. No student ought to be intimidated or punished by school authorities for their political speech, and the school already told him he would not be disciplined. This is especially troubling alongside news of other efforts to censor or intimidate students raising their voices for LGBTQ+ rights across Florida. The leaders of Flagler Palm Coast High School should remove this infraction from his record so that he can run for class president just like any other student.”

On Twitter, Petocz urged people to contact his school to get officials to reverse this latest decision.

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Florida

CDC: Seven dead in Fla. meningococcal disease outbreak

MSM urged to get vaccinated

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CDC headquarters in Atlanta (Photo courtesy of the U.S. government)

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said on Thursday that the agency is continuing its collaboration with the Florida Department of Health to investigate one of the worst outbreaks of meningococcal disease among gay and bisexual men in U.S. history.

At least 24 cases and seven deaths among gay and bisexual men have been reported so far a CDC spokesperson noted.

In response to this outbreak, CDC is recommending gay, bisexual and other men who have sex with men get a meningococcal vaccine if they live in Florida, or talk with their healthcare provider about getting vaccinated if they are traveling to Florida. CDC is also emphasizing the importance of routine vaccination for people with HIV.  

“Getting vaccinated against meningococcal disease is the best way to prevent this serious illness, which can quickly become deadly,” said Dr. José R. Romero, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases. “Because of the outbreak in Florida, and the number of Pride events being held across the state in coming weeks, it’s important that gay and bisexual men who live in Florida get vaccinated, and those traveling to Florida talk to their healthcare provider about getting a MenACWY vaccine.” 

People can find a meningococcal vaccine by contacting their doctor’s office, pharmacy, community health center or local health department. Insurance providers should pay for meningococcal vaccination for those whom it is recommended for during an outbreak. In Florida, anyone can get a MenACWY vaccine at no cost at any county health department during the outbreak.  

Seek medical attention right away if you have symptoms of meningococcal disease. Symptoms can appear suddenly and include high fever, headache, stiff neck, nausea/vomiting, or a dark purple rash. Symptoms can first appear as a flu-like illness, but typically worsen very quickly. People spread meningococcal bacteria to others by sharing respiratory and throat secretions (saliva or spit). Generally, it takes close or lengthy contact, such as kissing or being near someone coughing, to spread these bacteria.   

Meningococcal disease can affect anyone and can be deadly and includes infections of the lining of the brain and spinal cord (meningitis) and bloodstream. Keeping up to date with recommended vaccines is the best protection against meningococcal disease. 

More information about the outbreak and vaccine is available at Meningococcal Disease in Florida, 2022 | CDC.  

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Florida

Canadian teen arrested for threatening mass shooting at Fla. Pride event

West Palm Beach police say suspect has showed no remorse

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Courtesy of the RCMP

A 17-year-old male adolescent was arrested by Canadian law enforcement after he threatened to commit a mass shooting at a Pride event in West Palm Beach, Fla.

A report was received on Sunday by the Miami Police Department that a video was online posted to the video chat platform Omegle where the teenaged suspect was seen waving a gun in the video, making anti-LGBTQ comments, and he additionally claimed to be living in Palm Beach County, where he said he was going to commit the mass shooting that day at the Pride on the Block 2022 event.

After a joint investigation by Miami Police Department, which had notified the West Palm Beach Police Department; the assistance of the FBI, New York Police Department, Toronto Police Service and Peel Regional Police was enlisted to locate and arrest the suspect.

A spokesperson for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police acknowledged that the suspect was arrested Monday and that the weapon seen in the video was recovered. He was charged with threatening to commit a mass shooting and charges including written or electronic threats to kill, do bodily injury, or conduct a mass shooting or an act of terrorism. Charges are also pending in Florida.

ABC News affiliate WPBF reported that West Palm Beach Police Department Deputy Chief Rick Morris said during the press conference that the suspect knew the area well and most likely had other areas in mind for other attacks, but was not in West Palm Beach at the time of the arrest.

“People were very scared. The Pulse nightclub shooting is still very much in people’s minds especially in our gay community, which is tragic. We want the LGBTQ community to know we stand behind them,” Morris said.

In regard to the suspect Morris noted; “I can say through his statement that there’s no remorse.”

West Palm Beach police had uniformed and plainclothes officers along with SWAT team members at the Pride on the Block event on Sunday, which was delayed a day due to severe weather WPBF 25 reported.

“We did ramp (our enforcement) up in addition to the operational plan that we already had in place but I can’t go into the details or the specifics,” said Mike Jachles, public information officer for the West Palm Beach Police Department.

He continued, “These were hate-filled threats targeted at a ‘gay event’ in Palm Beach County and the West Palm Beach Police Department is committed to ensuring the safety of our residents, visitors and anyone who comes to our city.”

He is in custody in Canada currently awaiting extradition to Palm Beach County.

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‘Don’t Say Gay’ law looms over Pride in Wilton Manors

Parade to take place in LGBTQ-friendly Fla. city on June 18

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The annual Pride parade in Wilton Manors, Fla., will take place on June 18, 2022, against the backdrop of Florida's 'Don't Say Gay' law that Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis signed earlier this year. (Washington Blade photo by Yariel Valdés González)

WILTON MANORS, Fla. — This year’s Pride celebration in Wilton Manors will take place against the backdrop of Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law that Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis signed earlier this year.

The Stonewall Pride Parade and Street Festival will take place in Wilton Manors on June 18.

“This Pride Month is different than previous Pride months because we see the attack on the LGBTQ community and because we see that the attack has taken place on the LGBTQ community,” state Sen. Shevrin Jones told the Washington Blade on Monday during a telephone interview.

Jones represents District 35, which includes portions of Broward and Miami-Dade Counties, in the Florida Senate. Jones in 2020 became the first openly gay man elected to the chamber.

The South Florida Democrat on March 7 became emotional when he discussed his own coming out in a speech against the “Don’t Say Gay” bill on the Florida Senate floor before his colleagues approved it. DeSantis signed it into law — which has been challenged in federal court — less than a month later.

Wilton Manors’ Pride events will also take place less than a month after DeSantis’ administration asked the Florida Agency for Health Care Administration, a board that regulates doctors in the state, to essentially ban transgender-specific health care for children and teenagers.

“The flags are being raised higher now more than ever because it’s not just the physical flag, it’s the flag of our voices, it’s the flag of our advocacy that’s being raised in this moment,” said Jones, referring to Pride Month. “There is a group of people who are trying to silence the LGBTQ community.”

Brandon Wolf, press secretary for Equality Florida, a statewide LGBTQ rights group, in a statement to the Blade noted “the chilling impacts of the bigoted ‘Don’t Say Gay’ law are already being felt across the state, even before it has gone into effect.”

“Books with LGBTQ characters are being ripped from shelves. Graduation speeches are being censored. Rainbow ‘safe space’ stickers are being peeled from classroom windows. And there is an uneasy climate that is causing educators to leave the work they love in order to avoid discrimination.” said Wolf, who survived the 2016 massacre at the Pulse nightclub massacre in Orlando that left his two close friends, Christopher “Drew” Leinonen and his fiancé, Juan Guerrero, and 47 other people dead.

“All of that makes Pride as critical as ever this year,” he added. “Pride has always been a protest. It has always been a resistance to injustice and a demand for equality. This Pride, people across the country are called upon to let Pride inspire them to get civically engaged, to recommit to the fight to protect LGBTQ young people, and hold accountable those who are working to undermine progress and erode our civil liberties.”

SunServe is a Wilton Manors-based foundation that provides housing, mental health and other services to more than 5,000 LGBTQ people through its offices in the city and in neighboring Fort Lauderdale. SunServe is among the groups that plan to participate in the Stonewall Pride Parade and Festival.

“SunServe enters this Pride Month with a lot of enthusiasm and celebrating our foundation’s 20th anniversary,” noted Tony Lima, the foundation’s CEO.

Lima, like Wolf and Jones, acknowledged the “Don’t Say Gay” law will impact Pride in Wilton Manors.

“It will be a Pride with more focus on our young people,” Lima told the Blade. “Young people are our future and we must protect them and give them the opportunity to live full and happy lives.”

Florida lawmakers earlier this year approved their state’s “Don’t Say Gay” law. (Washington Blade photo by Yariel Valdés González)

Arianna’s Center is another Wilton Manors-based organization that serves trans women throughout South Florida.

The organization this past weekend participated in a Pride parade in the Puerto Rican capital of San Juan. Arianna’s Center staffers also plan to attend Pride Month events with the Mexican Consulate in Miami and with the Miami Police Department.

“June is not Pride (Month) for many of our clients, so we celebrate this month with a lot of responsibility, with the hope of having equality and that the transgender community is heard,” said Arianna Lint, the group’s CEO. “We have many wishes for improvement, equality and equity for the trans community. We cannot celebrate while there are trans people incarcerated for no reason and with no social services that help them.”

Lint also acknowledged the “Don’t Say Gay” law has adversely impacted Florida’s LGBTQ community.

“Everyone is affected and everyone must work together and not just in groups or an elite club,” she said. “This affects everyone and we must unite to be able to better work together to eradicate this and other types of bills that affect us.”

Michael K. Lavers contributed to this article.

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