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Florida parents upset by Michelangelo’s ‘David’ force out principal

Former Tallahassee Classical principal Hope Carrasquilla acknowledged that she did not notify parents about a Renaissance art lesson before images of “David” were shown in class. (Fabrizio Giovannozzi/AP)
8 min

A Florida charter school principal said she was forced to resign this week after some parents complained about their sixth-grade students being shown images of Michelangelo’s “David” statue in class, with one parent believing the art lesson on the Renaissance masterpiece amounted to pornographic material.

Hope Carrasquilla of Tallahassee Classical School in Leon County, Fla., said she offered her resignation during an emergency school board meeting on Monday after she was given an ultimatum by the board to resign or be fired, according to the Tallahassee Democrat. The principal said that she was not given a reason she was asked to resign but that she believes complaints the school board received from parents over the lesson on the Michelangelo statue played a role in what happened.

“It is with a sad heart that my time as the principal of Tallahassee Classical School has come to an end,” she wrote in a Thursday letter to the school board that was obtained by The Washington Post.

Barney Bishop III, the chair of the school board and a lobbyist, confirmed to The Post that he gave Carrasquilla an ultimatum following complaints from three parents who believed the material on “David” was “controversial” and not age-appropriate for their children. Bishop, who did not say why he asked Carrasquilla to resign on the advice of the school’s lawyers, told The Post that there were several issues with the principal, including not notifying parents ahead of time that their children would be shown the Renaissance statue.

“She wasn’t let go because of the artistic nude pictures. We show it every year to our students,” Bishop said, adding that Carrasquilla “voluntarily resigned.” “The problem with this particular issue was the lack of follow-through on the process.”

Tallahassee Classical, which follows a curriculum from Hillsdale College, the conservative, Christian institution in Michigan that has helped launch dozens of “classical” charter schools nationwide, is required to teach Renaissance art to sixth-graders. The lesson featuring “David” also included images of “The Creation of Adam” fresco painting and “Birth of Venus” by Botticelli.

Carrasquilla acknowledged in the letter to the school board that she did not notify parents about the lesson before images of “David” were shown in class. The former principal noted to the Democrat that while two parents were bothered by not being notified, one parent thought their child was being exposed to pornography.

Her husband, Victor Carrasquilla, rejected the school board’s action in forcing out his spouse in a short phone call with The Post, describing his wife as “a strong evangelical Christian” who should not have been forced to resign.

The parental backlash over “David” comes at a time when the state’s K-12 and higher education is possibly being reshaped through a spate of new Republican-sponsored bills that have been championed by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a potential Republican presidential candidate in 2024.

Cries to remove books from classrooms and library shelves are nothing new. Some of what has shifted are the storylines, characters and authors being silenced. (Video: Allie Caren/The Washington Post, Photo: Illustration: Brian Monroe/The Washington Post)

Debates have surged nationwide since the pandemic over what and how children should be taught about race, racism, gender and sexual orientation and the rights of transgender students — as well as the appropriateness of books available in school libraries and classrooms. Although the conflicts have touched at least half the country, inspiring 25 states to pass 64 laws reshaping what children can learn and do at school, Florida has been a particular hot spot. DeSantis has won national political attention and praise for his hard-line stance on eradicating what he calls “woke” left-leaning ideologies from schools.

DeSantis has enacted two high-profile bills on education: One that limited education on gender identity and sexual orientation to fourth grade and above and another that prohibited certain ways of teaching about race. DeSantis and his Education Department also rejected an Advanced Placement course on Black history, declaring it had no educational value and promoted left-leaning political and social views.

Among the bills filed in recent weeks by Republican lawmakers is House Bill 1069, which would grant parents greater power to read over and object to school instructional materials, as well as limit their child’s ability to explore the school library. The bill sponsored by state Rep. Stan McClain (R) would also require that instruction on sexual health, such as health education, sexually transmitted diseases and human sexuality, “only occur in grades 6 through 12.” The proposed sexual health bill gained attention last week after McClain acknowledged that the proposal would ban girls from talking about their menstrual cycles in school.

Florida bill would ban young girls from discussing periods in school

When Tallahassee Classical opened in the fall of 2020, the K-12 school stated on its website that its mission was “to train the minds and improve the hearts of young people through a content-rich classical education in the liberal arts and sciences, with instruction in the principles of moral character and civic virtue.” Tallahassee Classical had been advised by Hillsdale College, which has raised money by pushing back on what the institution describes as “leftist” academics teaching a “biased and distorted” view of U.S. history, according to the New York Times. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas once called Hillsdale College “a shining city on a hill,” and the school hired his activist wife, Virginia “Ginni” Thomas, to help establish a full-time presence in the nation’s capital.

Hillsdale College dropped Tallahassee Classical last year as a member school for not meeting its improvement standards, but the Florida school regained its curriculum status.

A longtime resident of Tallahassee, Hope Carrasquilla was named principal of Tallahassee Classical less than a year ago after serving as the dean of curriculum and instruction. The school celebrated her 27 years of teaching experience, including 10 years of classical education experience, in her biography, which has been removed from Tallahassee Classical’s website.

“She is excited to help shape the hearts and minds of the young scholars at Tallahassee Classical School for the sake of making our community and country a better place,” the biography reads.

Among the art lessons to sixth-graders was one on Michelangelo’s “David,” a sculpture created between 1501 and 1504 by one of the Renaissance’s greatest artists that has long been a symbol of the strength and independence of the Florentines, according to the Galleria dell’Accademia di Firenze, home of the statue in Florence.

Bishop said he does not think “David” is controversial, noting that he studied Renaissance art in Italy 50 years ago. He added that while 97 percent of the parents had no problem with the art class, Bishop emphasized that parents’ rights and concerns on what their children are being taught trump whatever he thinks about the lesson.

“I listened to what the parents had to say and have been in communication with them constantly, but I didn’t ask what was controversial, and I know I’m not going to change their opinion on that,” he said.

The lack of communication to parents was part of a litany of issues against Carrasquilla, Bishop claimed, saying he was not required to get into his concerns with the former principal. However, some parents were surprised when a last-minute emergency board meeting was scheduled for 7 a.m. Monday to determine Carrasquilla’s fate, saying it was part of a larger “paradigm shift” at the school.

“It’s starting to feel like the school is becoming part of an agenda,” Carrie Boyd, a parent who has two children at Tallahassee Classical, told the Democrat.

Bishop, who said the lessons on “David” would continue to be taught at the school with proper notification to the parents, did not push back that the school was aligned with DeSantis’s vision for education in the state.

“I applaud the governor, and we support the governor on his educational agenda in Florida,” Bishop told The Post. “Parental rights are supreme.”

Critics such as Jen Cousins of the Florida Freedom to Read Project, which fights against schoolbook challenges in the state, told The Post that the principal getting pushed out constitutes needless censorship of classical art.

“This is more of the same overreach restricting our kids’ educations,” Cousins wrote in a text message. “Are fine arts the next thing on the chopping block in Florida?”

Tallahassee Classical announced to parents this week that Cara Wynn would be its interim headmaster, the third principal at the school since it opened, Bishop said.

In her letter to the board, Carrasquilla said that the issues with the board run much deeper than the concerns over “David,” and urged the schools leaders to adhere to the state’s Sunshine Law to govern proper public meetings in cases like hers.

“I have always desired good for Tallahassee Classical School,” she wrote. “I am not about promoting myself or a political agenda.”

As the story unfolded this week, many observers online noted how “The Simpsons” predicted long ago what a parental backlash against Michelangelo’s famed statue would look like. Some pointed to the question posed by the character Kent Brockman about “David” as a summary of what’s happening at Tallahassee Classical: “Is it a masterpiece or just some guy with his pants down?”

Valerie Strauss contributed to this report.