Race, Masks and Social Media Mingle In Sarasota School Board Tensions

A young speaker who identified themself as Griffith, a member of ANSWER Suncoast.

In late September, Sarasota made national news for an explosive school board meeting triggered by an educational cartoon about Black Lives Matter (BLM) available on the district’s “BrainPop” site. The tensions have continued to boil and spill over in subsequent meetings, with parents, students, school board members and the community on opposing sides of a political divide manifesting in spirited disagreement about the BLM movement and mask mandates. On Oct. 21, four parents filed a lawsuit against the school board for the mask mandate that invokes Brown v. Board of Education in their claim that mandatory masks force some parents to educate their own children in a separate and unequal home environment. 

Second-year Ben Casey, a graduate of Sarasota’s Pine View School, has been following the controversy since its inception. Casey said it began after local journalist Francesco Abbruzzino published a compendium of sources outraged about a $115,000 contract the school board signed for teachers’ cultural sensitivity and diversity training on his alternative news site “The Uncensored Report,” which Casey describes as “alt-right.” The contract was pulled soon after Abbruzzino’s story. 

Next the parents galvanized around the offending “BrainPop” video, which was also removed from the district website. 

“Then they became a lot more focused on the masks,” said Casey, who spoke at multiple school board meetings. The seemingly unrelated issues of BLM and masks are part of what some parents see as a growing government encroachment aligned with “the far left.” No one from the parents’ Facebook group agreed to comment. 

The cover graphic, created by Lisa Seidel Worthy, for the Concerned Parents of Sarasota Schools Facebook group

“They’re saying we don’t know what these masks are actually doing to our kids, cause there’s no long term studies,” said Casey.  The parents cite possible lack of oxygen, bacterial and fungal issues with the skin and mouth, and the importance of observing facial expressions for developing minds. They say masks can impair children with anxiety or respiratory health issues—masks are required during strenuous activity like P.E., and according to the parents, medical exemptions are not respected. They’re also upset that teachers, but not students, are allowed to wear face shields instead of masks. 

“At each [meeting], the parents felt more and more grouped together,” said Casey. “They formed this group called the Concerned Parents of Sarasota Schools, and they wear red shirts. The first meeting was pretty wild, because they were just spouting these conspiracy theories, and then they got kicked out. This woman wouldn’t follow the rules for speaking times, so they kicked all the parents out, which just made them more angry.” This appears to be part of a trend— on Nov 10, a parent was aggressively arrested in front of her children at a Pinellas County School Board meeting for refusing to wear a mask. 

An hour before the Sarasota school board meeting on Oct. 6, the boardroom was already filled with stewing dissenters. Many middle-aged Sarasota parents faced off against majority millenial and generation-Z community members—some students and some affiliated with Sarasota’s BLM movement and/or leftist political groups. 

“I have a concern about the division we’re seeing in our school district  and the county in general,” said Superintendent Brennan Asplen before opening the floor for comment. “We’ve been receiving a lot of emails and phone calls about current event issues, there’s been a lot of Facebook information. A lot of times what happens is different people will write on Facebook, and then it’ll morph into something else, and then all of sudden everybody thinks this is real, and it’s really fake news.” 

Asplen emphasized that the school district is public, and “our teachers cannot indoctrinate students to certain group mentalities” when “certain current event issues are discussed in classrooms.” He also said that he was in the process of creating a committee of “diverse community leaders” to “discuss issues of cultural awareness in an effort to promote equity and close that achievement gap we have.” He reminded the audience of the virtues of civility, and that the board wasn’t scheduled to make any decisions regarding the mask policy or racial education in the meeting, to little effect. 

The opposing sides of the audience carried signs, chanted slogans at each other and gave hours of public comment on masks and racial issues. Both groups had called for supporters to flood the meeting over Facebook: the 1,600-member “Concerned Parents of Sarasota County” group on the one hand and Black Lives Matter Alliance Sarasota Manatee Chapter, ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War and Racism) Suncoast and The Party for Socialism and Liberation Florida on the other. 

“Right-wing school board member Bridget Ziegler openly admits that she wants to keep Sarasota students in the dark when it comes to social reform,” ANSWER Suncoast’s event page for the school board protest read.

“Her efforts to censor discussion about race and racism in schools are blatant attempts to stop students from thinking critically about inequality, social movements and social justice. We have to be just as open and blatant about standing up for uncensored education that encourages civic engagement around issues of race, class and power.”

The rhetoric from dissenting Sarasota parents was equally charged, bringing up leftist indoctrination and curtailing of freedoms, Antifa, school shootings and violence against police. 

“We’ve been an A-rated school district for years. Now suddenly, the Board has attempted to jump on the woke bandwagon. What happened?” one speaker said, who identified herself only as Megan. “Did you suddenly decide our schools have terrible racism problems? My guess is, you were approached by some type of lobbyist that represents a larger organization determined to alter our entire education system us(ing) our kids and our tax dollars. The school wants to bring in radical ideologies embraced by BLM and Antifa—ideologies that include dismantling the nuclear family and defunding our police.” 

“I don’t know why we pretend anymore that this school board is nonpartisan,” Megan continued. “Everything you do embraces leftist indoctrination, right down to the hand-selected incoming board member whose spouse’s name appears on Antifa membership lists. Everyone in this room should be scared,” Megan concluded to a flurry of snaps (clapping had been explicitly banned at the beginning of the meeting). 

A woman who identified herself as Zaire, a former student of Booker High School and vice president of Sarasota’s NAACP youth council, complained of incidents including a Booker teacher being made to take pride and BLM flags down from her classroom although it purportedly did not violate school policy. Zaire said that she was disciplined for making posts about this issue, and racism in her school more broadly, on social media. 

“During the pandemic, more students have become more open about their discriminatory views,” Zaire said. “Schools in the U.S. have always had a discrimination issue, and if racism can be so easily taught at a young age, it can be chastised and fixed at a young age, which is why it’s so important for cultural and diverse inclusion to be incorporated into classrooms.”

Zaire also said that after one of the school board meetings, a parent, one of the people who had just preceded Zaire’s comment, falsely claimed on a Facebook group that Zaire had threatened her family, and she was now receiving threats of her own on social media.

“The Concerned Parents of Sarasota County don’t seem too concerned about students at all,” Zaire quipped. 

The October 6 meeting came after the school board had already neutralized the two issues that apparently sparked the disagreements about race: they suspended the offending BrainPop video from their district affiliate website and Superintendent Asplen pulled a $115,000 contract with author and educator Sharroky Hollie for cultural sensitivity teacher training. 

The mask mandate, however, has been approved to extend until June 30, 2021 “unless extended or amended prior to that,” and the conflict shows no signs of slowing down. The board voted on Oct 6 to give the superintendent authority to install greater security measures at the chaotic meetings, which will include bag searches and metal detector wands. The Sarasota School Board will hold their next meeting on Nov. 17. 

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