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

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — 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 alleged school board member Shannon Rodriguez reported her to the Florida Department of Education for showing her students Disney's 2022 movie "Strange World." It's the first Disney movie with an openly 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.

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.

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Teacher speaks out in public comments amid investigation

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.

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

"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 Tuesday, 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 also 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," Rodriguez said. "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, who was elected to the school board last fall, was endorsed by the 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.

Rodriguez did not immediately respond to Tallahassee Democrat's, part of the USA TODAY Network, request for comment.

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"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 and his storyline includes having a crush on another male character named Diazo.

Critics have blasted the movie as indoctrination and FOX News said it was the latest "in a year of woke disasters" for Disney. 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 said in its Human Rights Policy, which was updated in 2022.

"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 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 his expected announcement of his presidential candidacy.

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."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY NETWORK: Florida teacher investigated by DeSantis admin for showing Disney film