The decision to cancel an after-school “Drag & Donuts” event at Orlando’s Boone High School – allegedly after a threat came from the Florida Department of Education – exposes both the district and the state government to a potential federal lawsuit.
For years, the student club has held the event without controversy. It features a local drag performer speaking to students about their life experiences and sharing messages of love and acceptance, which advocates say can be valuable for students whose families take issue with their lifestyle.
This year’s performer, Jason Deshazo, a.k.a. “Momma Ashley Rose,” has been a longtime figure in the local drag community. He runs the Rose Dynasty foundation, which raises money for LGBTQ teens.
Deshazo posted that the event was canceled and the reason behind it on his foundation’s Facebook page Wednesday afternoon.
“The Department of Education questioned whether my participation was age and developmentally appropriate for teenagers,” he wrote. “It’s plainly vindictive and meant to chill expression - and worse, it imperils vulnerable youths at a time when we should be embracing and protecting them.”
Deshazo, who had to pass a background check to address the students, said Wednesday night that he hadn’t yet been in touch with an attorney, but his words already showed the outline of a possible legal case.
Orange County School district officials believe the Department of Education overstepped the Parental Rights in Education Act, which lawmakers repeatedly insisted was limited to planned classroom instruction and did not include after-school activities.
Furthermore, at least some board members were concerned that the apparent unwritten state rule that drag performers could not speak to students because of the content of their speech would violate the First Amendment rights of both Deshazo and the club’s students.
“If you didn’t want your child to participate, they didn’t have to participate,” Boone High School parent Judi Hayes, an attorney who often advocates on public education topics, said.
That wasn’t the only law at play, though. Several board members cited the Equal Access Act of 1984, which was put in place by Congress to protect religious clubs’ rights to meet on school property after classes ended.
The act protected political and philosophical-oriented student organizations, either of which could include gay rights groups.
“We either allow all of our student groups to have speakers, or we can’t have any student groups to have speakers,” board member Karen Castor-Dentel said. “That’s a discussion that the board is going to have to have to have.”
OCPS staffers said their attorneys were involved in the decision-making process behind the Boone High School controversy.
Both Castor-Dentel and board member Melissa Byrd said they had minimal input into the decision, but expressed fear that pushing back against the Department of Education, even in a situation where the department’s action was illegal, would cause Gov. Ron DeSantis to remove board members from their seats.
Byrd said there were some causes she said she would risk her position on, such as student safety, but she didn’t want to see the governor appoint a political ally to her seat.
“I have to protect this seat,” she said. “I know that when I make decisions for these children, it’s… good for kids. I won’t know that the next person will do that.”
The current political environment in Florida, however, has reduced members of the body elected to run the district to offering statements of reassurance to their teachers and LGBTQ students without many possible actions to support those words.
“It was the Department of Education directly calling the principal of the school and making a threat of investigation and possibly losing the teacher’s license to teach,” Byrd said. “That’s someone’s livelihood.”
The Governor’s office and Department of Education did not respond to questions about why they were suddenly interested in after-school club activities, how far they’d take this issue or the legal consequences of stepping further.
“[LGBTQ students] have a safe place in our schools,” Castor-Dentel said. “They are welcome, and they are accepted.”