In the days leading up to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signing HB7 into law, members of the Manatee County School District were twisting the language of state law to push social emotional learning (SEL) and critical race theory (CRT) under the guise of a mental health support system and an African-American history program.
HB7—also known as the Stop W.O.K.E. Act and the “Individual Freedom” bill—states that curriculum based on race, color, sex, or national origin is discriminatory.
At an April 18 Manatee County School District workshop, school officials insisted that the district’s social emotional learning curriculum is required by state law, based on Florida Statute 1003.42.
Genelle Yost, the district’s executive director of Pupil Personnel Services, announced that “Character Strong,” an SEL curriculum in the district’s Mental Health Supports Plan, would be used to incorporate SEL into K–12 curriculum.
According to Yost, “Character Strong” is “part of the required instruction of [Florida Statute] 1003.42” because two similar curriculum programs, “Character Counts” and “Character First,” are both mentioned in the statute.
The law states that schools must provide “a character development program in the elementary schools, similar to ‘Character First’ or ‘Character Counts,’ which is secular in nature,” and later explains the requirements for character education in older grades.
On the website for “Character Counts,” SEL is listed as a core tenet, but SEL is not mentioned in the “Character First” curriculum objectives. Neither program is described in the Florida statute as having anything to do with SEL. The state statute simply says students should be taught a character development curriculum.
In fact, F.S. 1003.42 never mentions “Character Strong” or SEL.
Keith Flaugh, founder of Florida Citizens Alliance, told The Epoch Times he is convinced Manatee County’s district staff does not know what they are talking about.
“HB7 … strictly prohibits ‘subjecting any student or employee to training or instruction that espouses, promotes, advances, inculcates, or compels such individual to believe specified concepts constitutes discrimination based on race, color, sex, or national origin,'” Flaugh explained.
He said F.S. 1003.42 was passed in 2004–2005, and that the state Board of Education adopted new rules in July 2021: Rule 6A-1-094124 and specific new Civics and Health Standards (CHS), which include student character standards.
These new standards, Flaugh said, amend F.S. 1003.42 and effectively eliminate “Character First” and “Character Counts.” More importantly, they require “very thorough and specific social studies and history standards be taught as well as character standards,” none of which include the framework of CRT, SEL, or “Diversity, Equity, Inclusion,” he said.
“It appears the Manatee School Board and staff are ignorant of these new standards and hell-bent on interpreting them to support SEL, which is specifically designed to teach kids that facts don’t matter, only feelings and confused interpretation of factual history matter,” Flaugh said. “It reminds me of a Martin Luther King Jr. quote: ‘Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.'”
The 20 pages of CHS standards include such goals as teaching students how to “identify the words ‘We the People’ as found in the United States Constitution,” how to “explain the importance of public service, voting and volunteerism,” and how to “recognize the role of the United States Department of State in foreign affairs,” among other things.
Yost was followed by Cheryl Mathis, associate director of Exceptional Student Education for the district.
“As you heard earlier, the district is using ‘Character Strong’ as their social emotional learning curriculum for grades K–12,” Mathis said, adding that the program will be implemented districtwide by June 2023.
School Board member Chad Choate asked if the SEL curriculum had been approved by the Florida Department of Education (FDOE).
Mathis said that yes, it had. She then deferred to Yost, who deferred to Daniel Evans, Manatee County School District’s deputy superintendent of instruction.
“I know you asked about HB7,” Evans said. However, he noted that while Florida Statute 1003.42 does mention “Character Counts” and “Character First,” HB7 does not, so the district may have to revisit the issue in the future.
Manatee County School Board Chair Rev. James Golden also asked “as a general caveat” for verification that everything being presented had been approved by the state Department of Education. Mathis said, “Yes sir, that is correct.” Evans said the materials were “recommended.”
Later, Golden asked if they had any discretion at the school board level to stray from the state’s list of recommended textbooks or to request exceptions to use textbooks not approved by the state.
District Superintendent Cynthia Saunders said, “the state did give discretion a few years ago that any board could choose to purchase textbooks that were not on the adopted list as long as you went through an exercise.”
While she did not explain the detailed submission and adoption process, Saunders incorrectly advised that the books recently rejected by the FDOE “were on the state list” of “approved” textbooks. They were not “on the state list” of “approved” textbooks. They were on the list of textbooks submitted to the state for review.
The Florida Department of Education rejected 41 percent of math teaching materials submitted for review—the most in Florida’s history—because they included prohibited materials such as SEL, CRT, and Common Core elements, officials said in an April 15 press release.
State officials released images from some of the rejected materials, which included a lesson plan that used the numerical results of an implicit racial bias survey to teach about polynomials.
“The highest number of books rejected were for grade levels K–5, where an alarming 71 percent were not appropriately aligned with Florida standards or included prohibited topics and unsolicited strategies,” the release stated.
In addition to discussions of the inclusion of SEL curriculum in the district’s mental health education program at the April 18 board meeting, school officials also discussed recent revisions to the district’s African-American history program as prepared by the Manatee School District’s African-American history task force.
Latrina Singleton, the district’s director of federal programs and grants, provided an overview of the revised plan. But first, she said she wanted to address “the elephant that has been in the board room recently in regards to legislation and understanding the legislation.”
She said she was going to prove how “the plan truly follows” HB7 based on the state’s definition of critical race theory and what HB7 says about teaching African-American history.
But Golden interrupted her.
“There is no elephant in the room because, quite candidly, we decide what the elephants are,” he said, gesturing to the rest of the school board. “There are a lot of people that have come with a lot of opinions and a lot of perspectives,” he said, adding that he was not going to entertain partisan considerations and concerns.
“I am not interested in anybody else’s opinion about critical race theory,” Golden said. “First off, that’s against the law to teach. I don’t care what your theory is. We can’t teach it.” He said the only thing he wanted to hear from Singleton was her explanation of “how we teach African-American history pursuant to the statute sent down by the state.”
With that, Singleton skipped to page 15 of her presentation and displayed a slide showing the text of HB7 (pdf).
“In the plan that we presented at our last board workshop, there were edits that were made to the original plan for fear of the elephant that existed in the room,” she said, referring again to the inclusion of critical race theory concepts that are prohibited in Florida educational materials per HB7.
The original version of the African-American history plan (pdf) contained multiple references to “diversity, equity and inclusion,” including a goal of creating a “District Diversity and Equity Committee,” which was supposed to “advise the School Board and Superintendent regarding equity and access, diversity issues.”
In a section about professional development, the original plan also stated that teachers would be trained “with specific emphasis on the decolonization of curriculum and inclusivity.”
In an essay about the concept of “decolonizing curriculum,” author and cultural commentator James Lindsay explains that critical theorists view standard curriculum as “an ideological project devised by the powerful in society—meaning mostly straight, white, Western men with a ‘Eurocentric’ bent on things like science, reason, and rationality,” and that those values must be subverted to achieve justice for marginalized groups.
These are all key terms associated with CRT, but due to severe backlash from the public, district officials removed that language from the history plan.
Singleton suggested that the people who were upset about the diversity, equity, and inclusion policy and the references to “decolonizing” the curriculum had “misconstrued the plan as it existed compared to what they thought was happening,” implying that the issue with the plan was not the inclusion of those concepts, but rather how the public reacted to them.
The Epoch Times reached out to the Manatee County School Board members. Responding on behalf of Golden and the district was Michael Barber, communications director for Manatee County schools.
“All curriculum and instructional materials are approved by the Florida Department of Education,” Barber insisted. “As such, the district will adhere to and abide by any new legislation passed into law by the state legislature and Gov. Ron DeSantis as it relates to education in the state of Florida.”
In an email to The Epoch Times, school board member Chad Choate also insisted that district officials “follow all curriculum that the state of Florida approves” and “all laws put into practice by the Florida Legislature and Gov. DeSantis, like FL Statute 1003.42. We have prepared an African American History Task Force based on the State’s example.”
Board member Charlie Kennedy declined to comment, and members Gina Messenger and Mary Foreman did not respond.
Keven Chapman, director of strategic planning and initiatives for the district, said at the meeting that they are really fortunate that HB7 came out because it is “the roadmap” for their history plan, along with F.S. 1003.42, and that they are going to “stick with that.”
Kennedy said he “really found the language of the statute” to be useful because “that’s the definition of what some people consider to be critical race theory.”
Messenger said the language of HB7 made it clear to anyone reading it that they are in compliance with state guidance. However, she wanted to know how the people on the committees, mentioned on page 13 of the history plan, were chosen.
Singleton said they initially came from a list provided to them by the former head of the local NAACP chapter. Others came on later as word of what the committees were doing spread through the community.
Singleton admitted she is the one who oversees the committees in charge of the curriculum to make sure everyone stays on track. What she did not address was whether the activities conducted by the various committees that are going to “vet instructional materials” will be open to public scrutiny, as required by Florida’s Sunshine Law.
As described on page 15 of the proposed plan, “Once these resources have been adopted, they will be reflected in the district curriculum documents, with their use expected in classrooms across the district.”
Richard Tatem, a Manatee County citizen and a candidate for the Manatee County School Board, told The Epoch Times that “curriculum developers were hired, and they decided to take a couple of lines out of Florida Statutes and develop a whole diversity, equity and inclusions program that is disguised as an African-American history program.”
“It’s a subversive attempt to start focusing the curriculum and professional development of the school system around a very unpatriotic and, to some degree, Marxist concept, rather than just sticking to teaching good history,” Tatem said.
Tatem accused Golden of also being “very pro-critical race theory,” stating that “he’s the one that’s been pushing it. He’s been pushing it from the very beginning, for the past year-and-a-half.”
In an email to Tatem dated April 14, Messenger asserted that “Social Emotional learning is also required per FL statute 1003.42” and that HB7 “clearly states that character development and social emotional health and skills and mental health must be part of our schools.”
Gov. DeSantis’ press secretary Christina Pushaw told The Epoch Times there is nothing in Florida state law, including the new addition of HB7, that requires teaching social emotional learning.
“There are people pushing a narrative that required instruction for mental health includes Social Emotional Learning, and this is pure spin—it’s not factual,” she said. “Moreover, Social Emotional Learning is a type of teaching strategy, not a type of instruction. That is why you generally hear about Social Emotional Learning in the context of teacher guides.
“So, on that basis alone, if anyone claims that Social Emotional Learning is included in required instruction, they are knowingly deceiving people.”