‘Strange World’ controversy: Petition calls for school board member to resign amid Disney movie dispute

The Hernando County School District changed the location of Tuesday night’s regularly scheduled school board meeting in anticipation of a large crowd. The board is expected to discuss the findings of an investigation into a Disney movie that was shown to fifth graders earlier this month.

The teacher at the center of the controversy has already resigned.

Thousands are now calling for the school board member who started the flap, which made international headlines, to step down as well.

A change.org petition has garnered more than 23,000 signatures.

The petition accuses school board member Shannon Rodriguez of creating a hostile environment for teachers and administrators.

Thousands have signed a petition to have Hernando School Board member Shannon Rodriguez removed.

Thousands have signed a petition to have Hernando School Board member Shannon Rodriguez removed. 

The call to remove Rodriguez began after she reported 5th-grade teacher Jenna Barbie to the State Board of Education for showing what Rodriguez says was inappropriate material in class.

Barbie played the Disney movie "Strange World" for a classroom of 5th-grade students.

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The movie is about a family of explorers discovering plants and other lifeforms in a new land.

Barbie says the film complimented the class curriculum because she'd been teaching her students about earth science and ecosystems. She also says she believed she'd followed protocol because students in the class all had signed permission slips to watch PG-rated movies.

Strange World imagery from Disney

The movie, however, has become part of a broader conservative battle over open expression of LGBTQ topics ever since it was touted as Disney’s first film to include an openly gay character.

While not the main plot of the movie, a teenage character at one point expresses feelings for another male character.

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Barbie says she had no idea a minor character arc in the movie would lead to this level of outcry and a state investigation.

"Does that have anything to do with why I showed it? Not in the slightest!" Barbie said in a video she released on TikTok. "The LGBTQ aspect of the movie is harmless. It just talked about a crush and it’s only a couple of lines in a total scene time of just over two minutes. The parents in the movie kiss a lot and that wasn’t even brought up and that’s the issue."

Exterior of Winding Waters School.

Exterior of Winding Waters School. 

Rodriguez said the movie, which aired in a room of students that included her daughter, was not officially cleared by the school, and thus should not have been played for students. 

"You showed a movie that wasn't sanctioned school material, thus stripping the innocence of my ten-year-old, not your ten-year-old. I did not give you that right. It's my child," Rodriguez said at a school board meeting on May 9.

Florida educators are banned from teaching about gender and sexual identity as part of the Parental Rights in Education Act, which was signed into law last year.

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Some Hernando County teachers accuse Rodriguez, who joined the school board in January, of using the new law to embark on a culture war crusade in Hernando County schools.

"Shannon Rodriguez has displayed time and time again that, as a school board member, she does NOT support those who work in schools and has shown her disconnect with the reality of the public education system. She has called staff members lazy, claimed we are exposing children to pornography, and aligned herself with those who state that educators are indoctrinating and grooming children," Springstead High School teacher Shelby Waymire wrote in the petition advocating for Rodriguez’s removal. "Her actions are not indicative of an individual who is trying to help support and improve learning in our school system."

Hernando County School Board member Shannon Rodriguez.

Hernando County School Board member Shannon Rodriguez. 

According to Waymire, Rodriguez’s actions are leading to low morale and poor teacher retention rates in Hernando County schools.

"Teacher retention is at an all-time low in Hernando County, with over 80 percent of HCSD teachers leaving within the first three years of their employment. There are currently over 100 instructional openings for the HCSD, with only more teachers leaving and positions opening at the end of the 2022–2023 school year," said Waymire.

According to the school district’s website, Hernando Schools currently has 153 open instructional positions. 

Tuesday’s meeting, which is expected to draw a large crowd on both sides of the controversy, is scheduled to take place at the Hernando High School Performing Arts Center at 6 p.m.