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'Let teachers teach': FIU students join statewide campaign to protest DeSantis' education policies

More than a hundred students and community members gathered on the campus of Florida International University on Feb. 23, 2023, as part of a statewide protest against Gov. Ron DeSantis' education policies.
Kate Payne / WLRN
More than a hundred students and community members gathered on the campus of Florida International University on Feb. 23, 2023, as part of a statewide protest against Gov. Ron DeSantis' education policies.

More than 100 students and community members marched across the campus of Florida International University, rallying against a slate of education policies pushed by Gov. Ron DeSantis that the protestors say target marginalized communities.

The event was part of the statewide “Stand for Freedom FL” campaign that drew thousands of people to protest at universities across Florida.

Gathering on the lawn outside the Graham Center on FIU’s campus on Thursday, students carried signs that read “We’re Here We’re Queer” and “DeSantis Can’t Ban Us."

Despite what the protestors say is a series of attacks on Florida’s public education system, people in the crowd seemed energized, with some turning buckets into makeshift drums or shaking maracas as the crowd chanted, "Let teachers teach!" and “Ron DeSantis we’re no fools! We won’t let you run our schools!”

“People don't want to be in the state of Florida right now with what's happening. But we can't shy away from what's happening. We have to fight,” said Kaily LaChapelle, one of the organizers behind the protest and the president of FIU’s Pride Student Union.

The protestors were calling out a slate of state policies, including efforts to target gender-affirming healthcare for transgender students and attempts to restrict how race, identity and history can be talked about in the classroom.
Kate Payne / WLRN
The protestors were calling out a slate of state policies, including efforts to target gender-affirming healthcare for transgender students and attempts to restrict how race, identity and history can be talked about in the classroom.

The protestors are calling out state officials’ recent request for data on students seeking gender-affirming healthcare on university campuses, including treatments like hormone therapy and puberty blockers, which are endorsed by the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Association of Clinical Endocrinology.

Students were also railing against DeSantis’ pledge to defund diversity, equity and inclusion efforts on campus, and his efforts to restrict how race, identity and history can be talked about in the classroom.

LaChappelle says the policies are taking a toll on LGBTQ students and people of color.

“I've barely slept during these times, just being a student leader that cares so much about the people I represent,” they said. “It distracts us from the education that we're paying to have … it distracts us from our lives … our wellbeing.”

LaChapelle argues FIU isn’t doing enough to support trans students on campus, especially when it comes to their health needs.

According to FIU’s response to the state’s data request, the university does not currently offer gender-affirming care for trans students at campus clinics, and the school doesn’t track how many students identify as trans or gender-nonconforming.

DeSantis says the policies are meant to account for how taxpayers’ money is being spent – and are aimed at rooting out what he sees as “woke ideology” in public schools.

“I think people want to see true academics and they want to get rid of some of the political window dressing that seems to accompany all this,” DeSantis said at a news conference in Bradenton on Jan. 31, saying that DEI efforts would get “no funding, and that will wither on the vine.”

A protestor carries a sign that reads "History Is Supposed To Be Uncomfortable" while marching on the campus of Florida International University on Feb. 23, 2023.
Kate Payne / WLRN
A protestor carries a sign that reads "History Is Supposed To Be Uncomfortable" while marching on the campus of Florida International University on Feb. 23, 2023.

FIU computer science student Oscar Alvarez says he believes the governor is seizing on national flashpoints around identity as a way to drum up support among conservative voters ahead of his expected bid for the White House in 2024.

“I think that DeSantis is aware that there is a rise in the far right,” Alvarez said. “And alongside Trump as a competitor for the presidential campaign, they're trying to one up each other on how they can entice this base and agitate this base who sees these culture wars as a real issue.”

Alvarez says his family fled authoritarianism and oppression in Cuba and came to the U.S. seeking freedom and opportunity – an experience he says should serve as a warning sign for Floridians.

“If Cuban conservatives in this state are worried about authoritarianism, then DeSantis should not be somebody they should back, especially when they're limiting freedom of speech in the ways that Cuba has,” he said.

FIU student Rachel Gordon says she hopes the protests on Thursday will make people pay attention to DeSantis’ policies – and that they’ll stay involved in the democratic process.

“Us protesting today is one thing but actually voting is a different situation,” Gordon said. “I just think people should remember to vote … vote for the officials they believe will do the right thing.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Kate Payne is WLRN's Education Reporter. Reach her at kpayne@wlrnnews.org
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