Florida school district to return 16 challenged books to library shelves
LAKELAND — Two book review committees and Polk County Public Schools Superintendent Frederick Heid have approved the return to age-appropriate library shelves 16 books one organization contended were “pornographic” or “harmful to minors.”
Heid also announced during Tuesday’s School Board work session that he is proposing the use of a hybrid check-out system for all school media centers that would allow parents to opt-out of any book in their child’s library as well as opt-in to allow their child to access the 16 books.
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Heid said the school district could begin keeping those books behind the check-out desk so only students with parental permission would have access to them. The opt-out system has been in place for years, but it is seeing an overhaul to make it more streamlined, district officials say.
“Based off direction of the board (I) will be developing an opt-in policy, as well, to run concurrently, which would mean that the books in question would be essentially shelved and unavailable to those unless the parents provided explicit permission,” Heid announced to the audience during Tuesday evening’s School Board meeting. “The process did evolve based off our dialogue today, earlier at the board meeting, based off a recommendation from (School Board member Lynn) Wilson and affirmation from several other board members, as well. So thank you and it provides an opportunity to provide for the clarification for our stakeholders.”
How that process will work will be decided over the summer. Until then, the books remain quarantined at the district office in Bartow. Heid removed them from library shelves in late January following a complaint from County Citizens Defending Freedom-USA that some of the books were pornographic or contained materials harmful to children. Distributing pornography to minors is a felony and Heid did not want district employees to face possible arrest and prosecution.
The review committees determined that the books were not pornographic, were not harmful to children, and each had literary merit as a whole. At least one CCDF member approved returning two of the books to age-appropriate libraries.
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Possible legal action
But County Citizens Defending Freedom issued a statement on social media Tuesday night, saying if this process doesn’t satisfy them, they will sue the school district.
“If Superintendent Heid’s opt in/opt out recommendation for library books does not protect the children in Polk County Public Schools or follow Florida statutes regarding the protection of minors from obscene and harmful materials, CCDF-USA will be left with no choice but to proceed with the final step in our process, which is to pursue legal action,” a statement posted to the group’s Twitter page reads.
The group tagged the Polk County Sheriff and the school district.
“We are monitoring the terms of the opt in/opt out recommendation closely and are fully prepared to move forward if need be,” the post went on.
There is an additional step the group could take before heading to court. If it doesn’t agree with the superintendent’s decisions on any or all of the 16 books, the organization can appeal his recommendation.
On Tuesday, Heid also informed the School Board about his recommendations on the final four books reviewed by the two panels. The panels and Heid have recommended keeping all 16 books in schools at age-appropriate levels. The results on the final books:
- “Two Boys Kissing” — Both the panel and Heid recommended keeping the book at middle and high school levels.
- “Almost Perfect” — The majority of panelists and Heid recommended keeping the book at the high school level only.
- “I Am Jazz” — 15 of 18 panelists recommended keeping it all school levels, while Heid recommended keeping it at elementary grades only.
- “More Happy Than Not” — Panelists tied, with eight voting to keep it at middle and high schools and eight voting to keep it at high schools only. Heid recommended keeping it in high schools only.
The following is a list of all of the books in question:
- “Two Boys Kissing” by David Levithan
- “The Kite Runner” by Khaled Hosseini
- “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” by Jonathan Safran Foer
- “Thirteen Reasons Why” by Jay Asher
- “The Vincent Boys” by Abbi Glines
- “It’s Perfectly Normal” by Robie Harris and illustrated by Michael Emberley
- “Real Live Boyfriends” by E. Lockhart
- “George” by Alex Gino
- “I am Jazz” by Jessica Herthel and Jazz Jennings
- “Drama” by Raina Telgemeier
- “Nineteen Minutes” by Jodi Picoult
- “More Happy Than Not” by Adam Silvera
- “Beloved” by Toni Morrison
- “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison
- “Tricks” by Ellen Hopkins
- “Almost Perfect” by Brian Katcher
During the work session, no School Board member proposed voting on any of the books that have been reviewed.
Wilson spoke at the work session about his idea, saying if some of the books in question were movies, they would have an “R” or “NC-17” rating.
“Yet we’re OK with our students reading them. It’s illogical … this has been rather stunning to me. I don’t understand it on any level,” Wilson said. “I believe in parental choice and currently we have an opt out system, but that’s not a very good option for parents who don’t want their children to have access to these books. Because they can still go into libraries and get the books. They can’t check them out, but they can still get those books — they still have access to them. What I would propose is an opt-in system wherein the books in the libraries are segregated so that students don’t have access to them unless they have parental permission.”
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Multiple people both for and against putting the books back in libraries spoke at the evening School Board meeting, including Kathy Bucklew, a member of CCDF and also one of the reviewers. She approved “George” and “Two Boys Kissing” be placed in high school libraries only.
“Thank you all for taking this process very seriously. It is important. I’m not here to talk about the process or the books,” Bucklew told the School Board members. “I’m here to challenge you, to do something that takes a lot of courage, that we could be the first School Board in our state to advocate to the Department of Education, the governor, and our legislature, for a rating system for library books in our schools, similar to CARA that does the rating system for movies. It would make things easier for policy, for decisions, for librarians, for choices for parents, for selections for different age groups.”
According to the Motion Picture Association’s webpage, the Classification and Rating Administration of the Motion Picture Association “issues ratings for motion pictures exhibited and distributed commercially to the public in the United States, with the intent to provide parents information concerning the content of those motion pictures, to aid them in determining the suitability of individual motion pictures for viewing by their children.”
Anuhea Sonognini of Frostproof urged School Board members to remove the 16 books from PCPS libraries because of what happened to her daughter.
“I’m concerned what effect these books will have on our students,” she said. “These books will only encourage and further promote this type of sexual behavior among the young and innocent children and allowing access to these books could potentially harm another innocent child like mine if a student were to act upon what they read or be influenced on the images within these books.”
Lola Smith, a student at Boswell Elementary School, said she is a member of the LGBTQ-plus community.
“I am not a product of the media I consume. A book will not turn a child gay any more than it will turn them straight,” Smith said. “When you move to police access to books simply for acknowledging the existence of LGBTQ plus people, what you’re doing is cowardly. You are announcing to the world that you fear what you do not understand. Do you think if you burn all the books with (gay people) on the cover, we will turn ash with them?”
David Bunting, an English teacher at Winter Haven High School, said in his years of teaching, he has never seen an effort like this to “ban books.”
“One person or one group’s ideal should not be forced upon our children, whether they be deemed liberal or conservative. I say to the people in this room and beyond that if you do not want your child to be exposed to real life lessons in the hardship of others, then by all means lay in your bed of roses and please use the resources that have already provided to prevent your child from reading (it),” Bunting said. “We are not Nazi Germany or a dystopian society. We are not in some antiquated society where access to information is impossible. So why make it impossible? Keep the opt-out system and the infrastructure that we have worked so hard to build. We should not be in the business of banning books. We should be celebrating them.”
Natalie Cole, an English teacher at Winter Haven High School, said she was not in favor of opting students in.
“What about the gay kid whose parents are, you know, against him? And he’s very scared and he needs to reach out and find a book that’s right for him. His parents aren’t going to opt in,” Cole said. “What about the student that has no parents paying any attention to what’s going on in his life? Probably about 75% of my students. Who’s going to opt in for that child?
Cole said she respects each of her students for their uniqueness and thanked the School Board for trying to find a solution.
“There’s been a lot of words thrown around — indoctrination — things of that nature to just try to perpetuate myths and just misinformation,” Cole said. “I tell my students it’s their civic duty to vote. I don’t tell them who to vote for. I tell my students to read stories, impactful stories. I don’t tell them my opinion on those stories.”
Several members of the book review committees spoke, thanking the board for the opportunity and honor to participate in what they described as a thorough and rigorous process.
Terry Coney, president of the Lakeland branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, served on one of the two panels and called on everyone in the room to make educating children their primary goal.
“At the end of the Pledge of Allegiance that you do every week, you say liberty and justice for all. So that means, unlike anybody back in the gallery here, you — all of you — you have the responsibility to educate each and every one of those 110,000-plus kids. Books are a a primary tool in education,” Coney said. “Rather than complaining, we need more volunteers, we need more mentors to go into schools. … If we had more people volunteering in the schools, we wouldn’t have to worry about the books in the library.”
Bonnie Patterson-James, an alumna of Kathleen Elementary, Kathleen Junior High and Lake Gibson High schools and a member of Lakeland Women’s Voice, talked about the administrators at Kathleen that loved all children.
“We were kids going to school and learning. We didn’t have lawnmower parents telling our teachers how to teach. We didn’t have bipartisan boards pretending to be nonpartisan,” Patterson-James said. “Wake up and get involved. Our students need us. Our teachers need us … I’ve never been so disgusted. I mean, come on.”
And then Patterson-James faced the audience and directed her anger toward CCDF, Winter Haven 9-12 Project members and others in attendance who want to ban library books.
“Our kids need unity and leadership,.” she said. “We’re in this together. Stop it. Stop it! You should be ashamed of yourselves!”
Patterson later apologized to the School Board on its Facebook page for her outburst.
The next school board meeting is currently scheduled for June 14.
Ledger reporter Kimberly C. Moore can be reached at email@example.com or 863-802-7514. Follow her on Twitter at @KMooreTheLedger.
This story has been corrected. Bonnie Patterson-James is an alumna of Lake Gibson High School.