Florida teacher investigated by state agency for showing Disney movie in class

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A Florida teacher is under investigation by the state Department of Education after what she believes is a targeted attack by a school board member who took issue with a Disney movie shown in her classroom.

At a Hernando County School Board meeting Tuesday, fifth-grade teacher Jenna Barbee alleges school board member Shannon Rodriguez reported her to DOE for showing her students Disney's 2022 movie "Strange World." It's the first Disney movie with an out, gay character.

Barbee, a teacher at Winding Waters K-8, said during public comment the Disney movie tied into her students' Earth science lesson and did not have sexually inappropriate content.

"The word indoctrination is thrown around a lot right now, but it seems that those who are using it are using it as a defense tactic for their own fear-based beliefs without understanding the true meaning of the word," Barbee said at the lectern.

Florida educators are prohibited from teaching about gender and sexual identity due to the Parental Rights in Education Act, signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis last year. Also known as "Don't Say Gay" by critics, teachers have expressed anxiety and confusion over the vague wording of the law for fear of losing their teaching licenses or criminal penalties if found in non-compliance.

Opponents of the law say the vague wording unfairly targets books and classroom materials with gay and transgender characters and themes.

Disney's criticism of the law has sparked a year-long feud with DeSantis, who has tried to punish the entertainment giant ahead of an imminently announced presidential campaign.

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Hernando County's school district confirmed a fifth-grade teacher is being investigated for showing "Strange World," and that a parent complained to the principal about the movie not being appropriate for students.

Rodriguez, who was elected to the school board last fall, was endorsed by conservative parents' rights group Moms for Liberty. In her short tenure, she has argued there is "smut" and "porn" on schools' library shelves and has asked for books to be removed, according to Suncoast News.

▶See the teacher address the investigation on TikTok.

Barbee is the daughter of Don Barbee, a judge for the Fifth Judicial Circuit Court of Florida in Hernando. In her public comments, she alluded to her seven-year-old expunged record on a fraud charge, acknowledging she has made mistakes but showing a Disney movie is not one of them.

Barbee said that every student in her class had a signed parent permission slip that said PG movies were allowed.

She also alleges Rodriguez called her father to tell him about the DOE complaint.

"I'm a first-year teacher. I've had to learn so much this year," she told the USA TODAY NETWORK-Florida. "I work with teachers who have taught for 20 years, 30 years, tell me every day it never used to be like this. Times have changed so much and they are so micromanaged, they're not allowed to teach anymore. They're basically a caregiver who has to teach the standards. Teachers stay for the children, but because of the laws and the fear of being let go for saying one wrong thing, they can't connect to their students."

At the end of the school board meeting, Rodriguez said Barbee broke school policy because she did not get the specific movie approved by school administration and said the teacher is "playing the victim."

Rodriguez's daughter is in Barbee's class.

"It is not a teacher's job to impose their beliefs upon a child: religious, sexual orientation, gender identity, any of the above. But allowing movies such as this assist teachers in opening a door, and please hear me, they assist teachers in opening the door for conversations that have no place in our classrooms," Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez also said she has called DOE about other issues in the district and believes children should not be "a pawn in the crossfire" of liberal political agendas.

"As a leader in this community, I'm not going to stand by and allow this minority to infiltrate our schools," she said.

Rodriguez has not yet responded to the Democrat's questions by email as of Friday evening.

Disney's fight

'Strange World,' an animated sci-fi movie, was released by Disney in the late fall of 2022. The movie depicts a group of explorers who go on an adventure to find an exotic plant that serves as their society’s source of energy.

The main character, Ethan Clade, is gay. Played by Jaboukie Young-White, Clade’s storyline includes having a crush on another male character named Diazo.

Critics blasted the movie as indoctrination and FOX News said it was the latest "in a year of woke disasters" for Disney.

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"Strange World" features the voices of (clockwise from top left) Lucy Liu as Callisto Mal, the leader of Avalonia; Jake Gyllenhaal as farmer and father Searcher Clade; Dennis Quaid as diehard explorer and Searcher’s father, Jaegar Clade; Gabrielle Union as pilot and mother Meridian Clade; and Jaboukie Young-White as the youngest Clade, Meridian and Searcher’s son, Ethan.

Disney refrained from showing “Strange World” in the Middle East, China, Indonesia, Turkey, Nigeria, Uganda and other countries because of the LGBTQ storyline.

“In countries where we operate, we seek to share our stories in their original form as we and the artists involved have created them. If we make edits, because of legal or other considerations, they will be as narrow as possible. We will not make an edit where we believe it would impact the storytelling. In that circumstance, we will not distribute the content in that market,” Disney says in its Human Rights Policy, which was updated in 2022.

Disney has been in a legal battle with Gov. Ron DeSantis since company leadership spoke out against DeSantis' Parental Rights in Education law. The governor has gone to war against the Magic Kingdom, escalating the back-and-forth until the Florida Legislature authorized what amounted to a hostile takeover of the Disney-allied Reedy Creek Improvement District that was created in 1967 to give the entertainment giant broad, self-governing powers.

"Disney had clearly crossed a line in its support of indoctrinating very young schoolchildren in woke gender identity politics," DeSantis wrote in his book ahead of an imminent announcement that he's running for president.

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Disney is suing DeSantis in federal court, charging him with violating the company's free speech rights and claiming the governor led a "targeted campaign of government retaliation" against the company, a charge DeSantis dismissed as "political."

In the latest salvo in the DeSantis-Disney feud, Disney CEO Bob Iger defended the company's actions and wondered if Florida even wanted them there.

Iger said their wish was simply to continue doing business as they had been before, and suggested that the company's plan to invest $17 billion in Florida over the next 10 years might change.

"We operate responsibly. We pay our fair share of taxes," he said. "So I’m going to finish what is obviously kind of a long answer by asking one question: Does the state want us to invest more, employ more people and pay more taxes, or not?”

A familiar complaint

The complaint sent to the Hernando County teacher states the Department of Education's Office of Professional Practices Services "has determined an investigation is warranted into allegations that you engaged in inappropriate conduct."

The letter reads similarly to one that Leon County Superintendent Rocky Hanna received from the same office in December 2022, which alleges Hanna is being investigated for infusing his "personal beliefs" with his duties as the district's chief adminstrator.

Both letters are signed by Randy Kosec, chief of professional practices, under the words, "Please govern yourselves accordingly."

In an email, DOE spokesperson Cassie Palelis responded to the USA TODAY NETWORK's questions about the investigation into Barbee and wrote, "In compliance with Florida statute, we cannot comment on your request at this time."

Hanna has been a vocal critic of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and his administration on social media, in the press and at school board meetings since the governor banned mask mandates in schools during COVID-19. Hanna says that's made him a target for political retribution.

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Hanna believes the investigation began after Brandi Andrews, a board member of the Leon County chapter of Moms for Liberty, sent a letter to the governor calling on the superintendent "to be removed from his position." The letter was stamped with “LET’S GO BRANDON,” a saying popular among conservatives who use the G-rated term in place of “(Expletive) Joe Biden.”

Andrews included an excerpt from an email, a Facebook post and an op-ed in the Democrat, all written by Hanna in August 2022, as examples of “issues we have with our local school board right here in Leon County.”

In a statement, Andrews told the Democrat her complaint is "one of many."

"Any assertion that concerns I expressed as a parent should not be presumed as a catalyst for any investigation," she said.

This article originally appeared on Tallahassee Democrat: Florida teacher investigated by DeSantis admin for showing Disney film