Amid Fear and Censorship, Florida School Districts Are Pulling Books Off Shelves in Public Schools

(Imager Visioner at English Wikipedia via Florida Phoenix)

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In Central Florida, in a county named Polk, the “The Kite Runner,” a bestseller, is in quarantine.

In Flagler County, in Northeast Florida, “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” has been pulled from school library shelves.

And in Hillsborough County in the Tampa Bay area, “The Bluest Eye” was challenged by a parent who felt the novel’s explicit content was inappropriate for school-aged kids. The author: The late Toni Morrison, a Nobel Prize winner and a Pulitzer Prize winner.

While some advocates and lawmakers fear more books will be banned or challenged for telling the stories of LGBTQ people and racial minorities, GOP lawmakers are working to make it easier for parents and community members to weigh in and challenge books available for students in school libraries, potentially taking them off the shelves for weeks at a time or permanently.

Legislation moving through the 2022 legislative session would require that each new book or other material be open for “reasonable opportunity” for public comments.

That sounds okay, but maybe not. Current book bans and challenges in Florida and across the nation leave some lawmakers and activists concerned that the legislation will lead to an onslaught of removal of books relating to the experience of the LGBTQ community and certain perspectives on history, such as the Holocaust.

In a bill that passed the full House on Feb. 10, district school boards must report to the Department of Education any material for which the school district received an objection to and report any material that was removed as a result of the objections. Then the department would publish a list of “materials that were removed or discontinued as a result of an objection and disseminate the list to school districts for consideration in their selection procedures.”

What’s happening isn’t just about Florida

National outlets have reported increased scrutiny on what books are available in school libraries.

In Virginia, several books focused on the experience of LGBTQ teens have been pulled from school library shelves, ABC News reports.

A county in Tennessee banned a Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel called “Maus” by Art Spiegelman from its schools. It depicts the Holocaust through anthropomorphic animals, but was removed for crude language and depictions of nudity, according to CNN.

The late Toni Morrison, winner of the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for the novel Beloved.(Wikipedia via Florida Phoenix)

In Missouri, “The Bluest Eye” by acclaimed author Toni Morrison, was banned by a local school board, Today reports. The novel tells the story of a young Black girl growing up in the Great Depression. The American Library Association placed Morrison’s book in the top ten most challenged books in 2020.

Meanwhile, in Florida, George M. Johnson’s book “All Boys Aren’t Blue” was pulled from Flagler County Public Schools in December, according to FlaglerLive reports.

Jason Wheeler, a communications staffer with the Northeast Florida school district, confirmed with the Phoenix that as of Monday, Johnson’s book is still “not available for checkout” in Flagler public schools, and it’s not clear when it could be again, if at all.

The book relays Johnson’s experience of growing up as a Black queer man.

“It is very interesting, and sometimes just overwhelming to, daily, get Google Alerts of new counties, every single day, removing the book from classrooms while also getting direct messages from students and from parents who are desperately fighting to keep the book in school systems,” Johnson said during a virtual press conference Monday.

The press conference was hosted by Free-Speech advocacy group PEN America. The conversation focused on various legislation that members of the LGBTQ community say work together in order to diminish the visibility of LGBTQ people in Florida schools and nationwide, including the Florida Legislature’s so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill.

In the Polk County school district, 16 books have been pulled from middle and high schools for the time being, as district officials evaluate whether to keep them in libraries following complaints from a group called County Citizens Defending Freedom, the Ledger reported late January.

Polk communication staffer Jason Geary told the Phoenix that the 16 books are currently under review and it could be weeks before a decision is made on whether the books will return to Polk school library shelves. Meanwhile, the books are “in quarantine,” Geary said.

One of the books is “I am Jazz,” which documents the life of a young transgender girl native to South-Florida. Another is called “Two Boys Kissing,” which explores the experiences of young gay boys.

The books in this list are not just focused on LGBTQ issues either.  Two are Toni Morrison books, “The Bluest Eye” and Pulitzer-prize winning “Beloved.”

The Kite Runner is on the list as well. It was on the the top 10 most challenged book in 2017, according to the American Library Association. The book includes sexual violence.

What is County Citizens Defending Freedom?

The Phoenix reached out to County Citizens Defending Freedom (CCDF-USA), a group describing itself on its website as “an organization that provides the tools and support needed to empower citizens to defend their freedom and liberty, and place local government back into the hands of the people. As patriots have done throughout America’s history.”

The group has not yet responded to the Phoenix. Here’s what the national branch of County Citizens Defending Freedom said about the situation in Polk County schools, in a written statement on Jan. 31:

“County Citizens Defending Freedom has received an overwhelming positive response for bringing to light content within library books available in Polk County public schools that is explicit and inappropriate for minors.”

The statement continues: “The family values and virtues that shape a child should be and are developed in the home, and the content found in these books stand in opposition to those very core values. Parents should have confidence in sending their children to school without worry that undesirable, even unthinkable material is available to their children in their school libraries; especially books that potentially violate Florida’s decency and child protection statutes.”

Increased parent input

The current bill in the Legislature about potential book bans and censorship is HB 1467, sponsored by Republican Rep. Sam Garrison. He’s an attorney and represents part of Clay County in Northeast Florida.

Republican State Rep. Sam Garrison. (Florida House of Representatives via Florida Phoenix)

“What this bill is seeking to do is provide transparency to reinforce, for parents, the security and the confidence of knowing that when they drop their kids off at the local library and be comfortable of where they are. They want to encourage their kids to go to the library. We want people to be talking about libraries,” Garrison said last week on the House floor.

Jon Harris Maurer, Public Policy Director with Equality Florida, a statewide LGBTQ advocacy group, told the Phoenix:

“But our fear is how we see this bill potentially being manipulated by anti-LBGTQ extremists.”

Maurer noted that public comments in support of the House bill and the Senate version wanted LGBTQ materials removed from classrooms.

He continued: “We know that these bills also have a chilling effect and can make schools less likely to want to have those materials that are supportive to the LGBTQ community because they don’t want to face these challenges and liabilities from the anti-LGBTQ opponents who may try to use the system just to object to those materials that they don’t like.”

The House passed the bill 78-40, generally on party lines. It’s now headed to the Senate for deliberation.

Here are some of the other components of the bill:

All elementary schools would have to publish  “in a searchable format” a list of all materials in the school library or on a required reading list.

The bill works to integrate “public participation” in the material selection process for school districts, meaning that parents and community members would be more included when school districts are considering new books and instructional materials.

The bill includes meetings that must be open to the public when a district is selecting books and other materials.

During debate on HB 1467 last week, Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith of Orlando worried that more books representing members of the LGBTQ community will be targeted.

“I agree with the fundamental concept that parents have the right to control what their child reads. But they do not have the right to control what other parents’ children are reading,” Smith said. “And let’s be real, most of these movements to ban books in our schools, which should trouble all of us, are mostly movements to ban books about us. And by us, I mean LGBTQ Floridians, LGBTQ students, LGBTQ families.”

Florida Phoenix is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Florida Phoenix maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Diane Rado for questions: info@floridaphoenix.com. Follow Florida Phoenix on Facebook and Twitter.

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