Yet brief references to a character's gay crush apparently inflamed parent and Hernando County School Board member Shannon Rodriguez to the point where she felt she had to take swift action against the teacher who showed the film. Believing she had a religious duty to shield students from such content, she notified the school of the gay character's presence in the movie and met with the instructor to voice her frustration.
The teacher, Jenna Barbee, says Rodriguez also reported her to the Florida Department of Education and that she is now under investigation by the state.
After Barbee spoke out about the controversy at a May 9 school board meeting, Rodriguez, sitting atop the dais, said the PG-rated movie marred her child.
"You showed a movie that wasn't sanctioned school material, thus stripping the innocence of my 10-year-old," Rodriguez said, addressing the teacher directly.
Rodriguez went on to say, "I am here to stay."
"And yes, you can laugh, but God did put me here. So God has good things, and he has big things coming."
Barbee showed Strange World to students, including Rodriguez's 10-year-old, in Hernando County's Winding Waters K-8 school in early May following a morning of end-of-year standardized exams. While Barbee says students had signed permission slips to watch PG-rated movies, Rodriguez claims the teacher failed to ensure the movie was expressly approved as classroom material.
The movie depicts a group of explorers on the hunt for a rare plant that provides energy for their society. One of its characters, a 16-year-old, is gay, which becomes evident when his dad references the teenager's crush.
Barbee says the film touches on ecology and environmental stewardship, themes that she felt fit into her lesson plan. She insists the character's sexual orientation had nothing to do with her decision to show the movie.
"I chose this movie because it relates to our curriculum. Our unit at the time was earth science and ecosystems and how they interact: plants, humans, and animals. So this movie was perfect," Barbee said in a TikTok video. "Is a character in the movie LGBTQ? Absolutely. Is that why I showed it? No."
But thanks to the Florida Board of Education's "Don't Say Gay" rules, Rodriguez made headway when she reported Barbee for "indoctrination," prompting the Florida Department of Education to launch an investigation into the teacher for potential violation of the policy banning the teaching of gender identity and sexual orientation, Barbee says.
Barbee, a first-year teacher, is in danger of suspension or losing her job altogether, she says.
"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 argued at the recent school board meeting.
Signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis last year, the Parental Rights in Education Act (AKA Don't Say Gay bill) prohibits instruction of gender identity and sexual orientation in classrooms until fourth grade. In April, the Board of Education implemented rules that apply similar restrictions through the end of high school.
@becomingabetterbarbee I am the teacher. Here is the truth. #indoctrination #disneymovie #disney #strangeworld #viraltweet ♬ original sound - Jenna Lynn
The law and accompanying rules have caused rampant confusion among educators across the state as they struggle to understand the boundaries of the regulations. It's devolved to the point where teachers are concerned that they'll be punished for teaching about historical developments in civil rights, such as the landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling establishing the right of same-sex couples to marry.
Rodriguez discussed her disdain for Strange World during the May 9 meeting.
"While you may feel a PG movie is not a matter of utmost importance, know that this is only one example of your children being exposed to controversial issues that have no place in schools," Rodriguez continued.
"God bless each and every one of you," she said to close the meeting.
Rodriguez's run for a Hernando School Board seat was endorsed by the right-wing group Moms for Liberty, which campaigns to elect conservative school board members and advocates for schools' removal of books that the group finds objectionable.
She secured her seat in a victory over incumbent board member Jimmy Lodato in August 2022, winning 60 percent of the vote. A nursing school graduate, she has lived in Hernando County for more than 36 years and runs an auto repair shop with her husband.
In an interview with the Hernando Sun prior to her election, Rodriguez said that one of the biggest issues plaguing the school district was a "curriculum centered around political ideology versus teaching skills essential for the workforce and life in general." She lamented that children "are graduating without the ability to endorse a paycheck in cursive" and "read the Declaration of Independence as it was intended to be read."
Rodriguez has emerged as conservative parents' most vocal voice on the board in recent weeks as the school district has been embroiled in controversy over alleged comments made by a trans teacher to administrators at Fox Chapel Middle School in March after she saw students making disparaging remarks online about her sexual orientation. Parents became incensed that the teacher, who is accused of making a reference to shooting students, was not immediately removed from campus.
The Disney movie controversy was overshadowed for a few days by the fallout from the Fox Chapel uproar as superintendent John Stratton faced calls to resign over the latter incident. A motion for a vote of no confidence against Stratton was backed by Rodriguez and a fellow board member, though the measure was tabled at the May 9 meeting.
After Barbee posted her social media video this past weekend about the disciplinary action she's facing, the story was covered in the Tallahassee Democrat before making national headlines.
Strange World featured Disney's first openly gay teen character, voiced by comedian Jaboukie Young-White. The film was released in November 2022, starring characters voiced by actors Jake Gyllenhaal, Dennis Quaid, and Lucy Liu. Even before it hit theaters, it was drawing backlash from prominent religious conservative figures such as Ben Shapiro, who argued that Disney was trying to indoctrinate children by including a gay teenager in the plot.
Disney's public opposition to the Parental Rights in Education Act last year created a rift with Gov. DeSantis' office, which preceded the legal battle currently brewing between the State of Florida and Disney over the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District where Disney's Orlando theme parks operate.
While speaking during a county school board meeting last week, Barbee insisted that the Strange World scenes causing a stir are in no way sexual. In the six-minute TikTok video she posted over the weekend, Barbee emphasized that the character's sexual orientation had nothing to do with her decision to play the movie.
"I'm not pushing anything, just being accepting," Barbee said. "That's what I do."
"The parents in the movie kiss, a lot. And that wasn't even brought up," Barbee added.
Barbee is the daughter of Hernando County circuit judge Don Barbee, who formerly served as the county's clerk of court. As disclosed by Barbee after she came into the national spotlight, she faced legal trouble seven years ago when she was charged for allegedly stealing money from a cash register at the Target where she worked.
My friend showed Disney’s Strange World in a Florida classroom and one student reported it to their parents. Now she’s under investigation by the state.— Carl Zee (@c350Zee) May 11, 2023
Florida is not safe for teachers, DO NOT MOVE HERE. pic.twitter.com/rZJPdadz28
On May 11, Twitter user @c350Zee posted a photo of a letter from the Florida Department of Education to a redacted recipient with the caption: "My friend showed Disney's Strange World in a Florida classroom and one student reported it to their parents. Now she's under investigation by the state."
"Florida is not safe for teachers, DO NOT MOVE HERE," the message reads.
The letter states that the Florida Department of Education's Office of Professional Practices Services determined that an "investigation is warranted into allegations that [the teacher] engaged in inappropriate conduct."
The school district confirmed in a statement that a fifth-grade teacher is being investigated for showing the Disney movie and assured parents that "in the future, this movie will not be shown."
"Yesterday, the Disney movie Strange World was shown in your child's classroom," the school district wrote in the statement. "While not the main plot of the movie, parts of the story involve a male character having and expressing feelings for another male character... The school administration and the district's Professional Standards Dept. is currently reviewing the matter to see if further corrective action is required."
As part of the state investigation, Barbee claimed her 10- and 11-year-old students are now being plucked from class by officials for interrogation — something she worries will traumatize them more than a fleeting exposure to a gay character.
"Their teacher showed a movie to help them connect to our curriculum and learn some valuable life lessons," Barbee said. "Now, admin is in their room, pulling their teacher out, calling the students one by one down to the office to interrogate them in the middle of my lessons."