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Students hold statewide campus walkouts to protest DeSantis' 'attack on education'

A ring of about 200 students surrounds the Marshall Student Center plaza on the USF campus. They're watching a speaker on a box speak. Numerous students are holding protest signs.
Daylina Miller
WUSF Public Media
A couple hundred University of South Florida students participated in a campus-wide walkout, along with thousands of other students from other schools, to protest efforts by the DeSantis administration to change curriculum at schools, repeal diversity, equity and inclusion programs, restructure New College of Florida in Sarasota, and more.

A few hundred students and faculty members gathered at the USF Tampa campus as part of the statewide protest.

Thousands of students at colleges and high schools across Florida walked out of their classes Thursday.

They did so as part of a movement called “Stand for Freedom” — a protest of the DeSantis administration's probe into college diversity, equity and inclusion programs, requests for health records for trans students and faculty, the restructuring of New College of Florida, and more.

A curly haired man wearing glasses and a yellow bandana on his arm stands in front of the green student center.
Daylina Miller
Junior Elijah Keila spoke to the crowd at the "Stand for Freedom" rally on the University of South Florida campus on Thursday, Feb. 23, 2023.

At the University of South Florida Tampa campus, a couple hundred students and some faculty members gathered outside the Marshall Student Center in the unseasonable February heat.

Junior Elijah Keila spoke to the crowd at the rally.

“I believe there's a world where we can assume our freedom, where we can assume Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. One where we can all exist side-by-side and celebrate our differences as the glue of our society.”

Daylina Miller
WUSF Public Media

Senior Faelyn C., who did not want to give their last name, drew a sign that read "Diversity is democracy" before the walkout began, saying the demonstration was important for the environment of the school and society we live in.

"Everybody's voices are important in the world that we are creating together," Faelyn said. "It is important that those voices are diverse, so that everybody gets a say in the democracy that we are part of."

Junior Ilah Davis with the Students for Sensible Drug Policy at USF said the university needs to embrace diversity.

"Why (is) me wanting to be myself or people embracing their culture, or disabilities, and you know who they are at their core, why should that should be refused?

"Why are we saying that you were not allowed to celebrate Black History Month or celebrate Hispanic History Month and bring awareness to those cultures?" she said. "I just don't understand why that's seen as bad or (why) we shouldn't embrace love."

A man with gray hair and a gray beard and glasses reads from a piece of paper to a crowd.
Daylina Miller
WUSF Public Media
University of South Florida philosophy professor Lee Braver was one of several speakers during a campus-wide walk out organized by students.

Lee Braver, a professor of philosophy at USF and father of one of the organizers, spoke at the rally, telling students to "never stop asking questions."

"Questioning your government is sometimes called unpatriotic, but investigating what your leaders are doing in your name, holding them accountable for what they do is not just your right in a democracy, it is your obligation."

Braver spoke about the history of Socrates, asking students if the story sounded familiar.

"Athens brought Socrates up on not believing what the government required all citizens to believe and corrupting the youth."

He added, "You can always tell when a leader is scared, they go after the educators. They fear an educated populace and they should. If knowledge is power, education is empowerment."

A man wearing a dark blue trucker hat and a green armband speaks to a crowd.
Daylina Miller
WUSF Public Media
Jonathan Chavez was one of the student organizers and speakers for a campus-wide walkout at the University of South Florida on Thursday, Feb. 23, 2023.

The student organizers, including senior Jonathon Chavez, said their fight won't end with this event.

“We as college students are all free-willed adult citizens of the state of Florida, not children to be paternalistically indoctrinated at the will of the governor.”

Organizers say they're creating a student and faculty bill of rights that is scheduled to be unveiled on Feb. 28, at a protest outside the New College Board of Trustees meeting.

Walkouts also happened at other universities across the state, including:

University of Central Florida
About 200 students gathered at UCF's Memory Mall Thursday.

Their goal was to send a message to UCF president Alexander Cartwright that students don’t want the state to infringe on their freedoms or reduce diversity, equity, and inclusion programs, said Olivia Solomon, a UCF senior and the event’s lead organizer.

“We want him to make a statement and not just say that they protect freedom. We want to make a statement saying that we will not allow our DEI programs to go away without a fight and they will not comply with the governor,” she said.

"(DeSantis) will not be able to get away with this we are here and we are fighting back. And if (he) wants to suppose we make Florida a free state, then (he) needs to allow DEI programs to exist, you need to allow state or queer and trans students to exist on campus and empower them because we know that that brings power in that brings freedom."

Former District Representative Carlos Guillermo Smith also spoke, encouraging students to register to vote.

"(DeSantis) demanded that all universities hand over detailed information about support services they provide for transgender students," Smith said during the rally. "These are life-saving support services offered not only at UCF but at state universities across the country so that transgender students can live happy lives as their authentic selves. And we support them in doing that."

- Joe Mario Pedersen, WMFE

Florida State, Florida A&M University, and Tallahassee Community College
More than 100 protestors from the three Tallahassee schools gathered at Florida State University's Wescott Fountain, including Tallahassee native Isiah Taylor.

“I don’t really represent a group but I’m just here to show support for my fellow LBGTQ and African American friends," Taylor said. "I’m here to show support and comradery that I stand with them 100 percent.”

“Because we are living in a very interesting time,” said Taylor. “We are seeing fascism and authoritarianism come to Florida and we don’t want that, because this is the United States and we should stand for democracy.” 

State Rep. Anna Eskamani (D-Orlando) also attended the Tallahassee walkout.

- Adrian Andrews, WFSU

Florida International University
More than a hundred students and community members marched Thursday at Florida International University in Miami.

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."

Organizers called out the state for collecting data on transgender students who get healthcare on campus — and the governor’s pledge to defund diversity, equity and inclusion efforts.

"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, a trans student and president of FIU’s Pride Student Union.

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

"I know for one, 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.”

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.

- Kate Payne, WLRN

University of North Florida
Holding signs like “Keep surveillance out of education,” University of North Florida students marched across campus to a town hall that President Moez Limayem was holding Thursday.

The walkout was the second protest this week at UNF, after students rallied Tuesday with a list of demands for Limayem, including maintaining "all preexisting commitments to inclusivity, equity, diversity and justice."

"I could lose classes that I'm currently taking to further my knowledge about the history of this country," senior Alivia Kalin said to Limayem during the town hall. "Will you protect us? Will you defend us?"

The president said any programming changes are still pending, with no new law specifically addressing DEI programs.

"If it is hypothetical. If it is legal to protect every single thing we do in the DEI, we will do it. You have my commitment — if it is legal to do so. If it's not legal, we cannot. We're not going to break the law," Limayem said.

Limayem also told students he would find alternative funding for all existing DEI programs if state funding is cut, as long as the state doesn't bar it.

After the walkout and town hall, Jacksonville civil rights leader Rodney Hurst joined student activists at the campus library for a read-in and Black history lesson — telling students, there is power in a vocal few.

"It's important, not only for me to be here with you, but to support you and to tell you the Civil Rights Movement didn't start with many," Hurst told students. "There was no cast of thousands out there sitting in, picketing, marching. There were a few."

- Claire Heddles, WJCT / Jacksonville Today

Students at the USF St. Petersburg campus, the University of Florida, New College of Florida, Florida Polytechnic University, Florida Atlantic University, Rollins College, and Largo High School also participated in the walkout.

Nothing about my life has been typical. Before I fell in love with radio journalism, I enjoyed a long career in the arts in musical theatre.
I took my first photography class when I was 11. My stepmom begged a local group to let me into the adults-only class, and armed with a 35 mm disposable camera, I started my journey toward multimedia journalism.
Mark Schreiner is the assistant news director and intern coordinator for WUSF News.
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