When Fox News decided to cover a benign elementary school field trip to Rosie’s Bar and Grill the story blew up on right-wing media with conservatives lashing out at the bar, the school, and the school board member who chaperoned the annual trip.
The field trip was an annual event held by Wilton Manors Elementary School. Parents had to sign permission slips to allow the children to attend.
Over two days, kindergarteners and first graders walked down to Rosie’s Bar & Grill on Wilton Drive. They learned how a restaurant works by touring the kitchen, then how to order off a menu, pay the bill, and even tip. It’s part of the school’s Community Curriculum.
But Fox News did not provide any nuance in their story. The headline read “Florida school board member takes elementary school students on field trip to gay bar: 'SO honored'”
On one of the days Sarah Leonardi, District 3 school board member, chaperoned the children. She posted pictures of the outing on her Facebook page, with the caption: “I was SO honored to be invited to chaperone Wilton Manors Elementary’s field trip to the incredible Rosie’s! The students and I had a fun walk over and learned a lot about our community! A huge thank you to Rosie's Bar and Grill for hosting this special field trip every year!”
Once Fox News posted a somewhat-factual version of the field trip, readers took it from there and fanned the flames of fear-mongering.
Comments, which were mostly from people who have never been to Wilton Manors much less to Rosie’s, targeted Leonardi, the school board, and the LGBT community at large.
“Sadly, I've recently been attacked with bigoted comments and death threats,” Leonardi told SFGN at the time. “My friends, family, and church have also been targeted. These attacks have no place in our society. The threats have been referred to the appropriate authorities, and I will continue to work hard to engage with my community, spread positivity, and represent my district on the school board.”
After the Fox story was published Rosie’s was inundated with angry calls, mostly from places other than South Florida. They tied up the phone lines, making violent threats, and hurling ugly slurs at whoever answered the phone.
Rosie’s co-owner, John Zieba, told SFGN once Fox published an innuendo-filled story, things quickly got out of control.
“People started calling right away and blowing up our phones, sending emails through the website, putting comments all over our social media posts.”
Vile comments were made towards everyone at the restaurant, including Zieba himself.
“I said we did host some elementary school kids. He called me a pedophile, that I was grooming children, and said he hopes that I die.”
Wilton Manors City Commissioner Chris Caputo at the time pointed out the nefarious undertones of the story.
“Fox News’ implication that she is grooming kids to be gay is absurd. She is smart enough to know taking students to a restaurant owned by an LGBT individual isn't grooming them to be gay any more than taking student to Bona Italian would be grooming them to be Italian. We're born this way!”
A few days after the “controversy” erupted members of the Wilton Manors Elementary community showed up to support and say thanks. Dozens of teachers, parents, and students, past and present, came by for dinner and to lean on each other after a rough couple of days. They said they appreciate what Rosie’s does for the school throughout the year.
“There’s a lot of families where the kids are much older now but are still coming in because of that experience. They feel good coming here,” Zieba said.
Equality Florida also spoke out for the school and restaurant’s relationship.
“Anyone who’s visited Wilton Manors knows your trip isn’t complete until you’ve tried one of Rosie’s famous burgers,” Senior Political Director Joe Saunders said. “This is a community institution thriving in the heart of one of the U.S.’s largest LGBTQ populations.”