Students protest recent actions in Tallahassee affecting primarily LGBTQ and minority students outside of Hillsborough High School on Friday, April 21, 2023, in Tampa. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

The first students to arrive at the flagpole at Tampa’s Hillsborough High School carried small American flags.

One draped a larger rainbow flag around her shoulders. There were handwritten cardboard signs that said, “Academic Freedom,” “We are the Future,” “History, Not Hate” and “Book Bans are Unamerican.”

They chanted, “What do we want? Justice. When do we want it? Now.” and “Teach the truth.”

In the crowd, some directed profanities at Gov. Ron DeSantis.

Principal Kevin Gordon watched from the sidewalk, communicating with other administrators over a walkie-talkie.

“They just want to be heard,” Gordon said of the students. “We’ve got good kids. Really good kids.”

After about 10 minutes, the students headed back into the building. Across the state, students at 300 high schools, colleges and universities walked out of their classrooms in a symbolic rebuke to the state.

The Walkout2Learn protests were organized by students and spearheaded by Zander Moricz, a plaintiff in a lawsuit against the Parental Rights in Education Act, also known as the Don’t Say Gay bill. They targeted recent education policies from DeSantis and the state Legislature, including the Individual Freedom Act, also known as Florida’s Stop Woke act.

“Right now, Florida’s people do not have control over their legislature—our governor does,” an organizing toolkit for the group said. “ … Florida’s organizers — all of us — can make a difference if we think strategically.”

Walkouts were planned at high schools and colleges across the state, and evening rallies were planned in Sarasota, Orlando, Jacksonville and Miami Beach.

During the walkouts, students presented a five- to 10-minute “banned history lesson” they’d planned. The topics included Marsha P. Johnson,a pioneering Black LGBTQ activist, and “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the Black national anthem, which an Ocala school required a permission slip to learn about. Students also could sign up for a college-level, online Black history course designed by Ivy League educators. They pledged online never to vote for people who don’t support student rights.

On the Walkout2Learn website, organizers told students not to fear punishment for participating, and that they had lawyers and politicians to support them. “Students for generations have walked out, and it’s worked,” the site said. “Join us in joining them.”

The walkouts were promoted on social media by celebrities popular with Generation Z, including actresses Pauline Chalamet and Beanie Feldstein and content creator Dylan Troesken. Teachers in other states also shared posts of solidarity.

Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, who supported the group as they organized, said she believed that though not all protesters were old enough to vote, their actions indicated a disconnect with legislators.

“It’s clear that young people are not being deterred,” she said. “This is their state. I mean, they’re the future leaders of Florida. And yet policies being implemented and passed are those that ignore their identity — that dismisses their perspectives and attempts to control the next generation and their free will.”

She added, “It’s the first step in what will be many efforts to take back the state for young people and to craft a future that’s, that’s all-encompassing and inclusive to every Floridian versus just a few.”

Morrisey Montgomery, a senior at Hillsborough High School, heard about the Walkout2Learn movement last week from a former elementary school teacher.

Montgomery saw Hillsborough High was not registered, so decided to bring it to the school.

”Education is liberation,” Montgomery said. “It’s important for us to learn about our real history and what actually happened. Erasing these themes of LGBTQ and African American history doesn’t make anything better for anyone.”

At Freedom High School in Tampa, students posted photos gathered in the school’s courtyard, holding rainbow flags and signs with messages like “Erase bigotry, not my history.” At Gibbs High School in St. Petersburg, members of the Gay-Straight Alliance shared posts of students walking out.

Cameron Driggers, a senior at Flagler-Palm Coast High School, started protesting in 2021, when Flagler County’s school board considered removing books. Last year, he helped organize a walkout against the Don’t Say Gay bill.

“I think this today is just one more example of the way the Gen Z is not going to be legislated away without fighting back,” Driggers said. “Ron DeSantis might have an iron grip on the state Legislature and the bureaucratic agencies in Florida, but in my opinion, organized students can be organized power.”

Nadia Plechaty and Zoe O’Brien of Eckerd College said though they attend a private college that is exempt from bills that target curriculum, they wanted to raise awareness about legislation.

“Thank God we are like safe in terms of what we get to learn, but that doesn’t mean that people our age aren’t having censored education, which is just not OK,” Plechaty said. “It’s about our history. It’s just heartbreaking.”

Isabela Puente, a senior at the School for Advanced Studies in Miami-Dade County, said while she plans to attend the University of Miami, she worries about the future.

“For someone like me, I have younger siblings,” she said. “My sister might not learn about her menstrual cycle or how people get pregnant. It’s easy to brush a protest off as one day because it doesn’t make immediate change, but this is not the end. This is the beginning of a long fight.”

Divya Kumar is a higher education reporter for the Tampa Bay Times, in partnership with Open Campus.

Higher education reporter for The Tampa Bay Times in partnership with Open Campus.