Reading & Literacy

There’s Confusion Over Book Bans in Florida Schools. Here’s Why

By Eesha Pendharkar — March 16, 2023 9 min read
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis answers questions from the media in the Florida Cabinet following his State of the State address during a joint session of the Senate and House of Representatives Tuesday, March 7, 2023, at the Capitol in Tallahassee, Fla.
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The Duval County school district in Florida last month removed a book about Afro-Puerto Rican baseball legend Roberto Clemente from library shelves for review. The removal of the book, Roberto Clemente: Pride of the Pittsburgh Pirates by Jonah Winter and Raúl Colón, made national news, and it was among more than a million titles the district said it is reviewing to adhere to Florida’s laws restricting lessons about race and racism, gender and sexual identity, and requiring school librarians to review books and remove inappropriate content.

The book was allegedly under review because it contained references to the racism Clemente experienced.

But this month, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis and Manny Diaz, the state education commissioner, blamed districts for overreacting and removing the books, such as the ones about Clemente and another Major League Baseball player, Hank Aaron, in a press conference about “the book banning hoax.” They also denied reports of mass book bans in Florida, and did not address mass removals and reviews of books due to state laws and department of education guidelines.

“Duval County was saying that the book was being banned, and the media was pointing to us, pointing at the governor,” Diaz said.

“All they’re doing is trying to use this to create lies and attack our governor.”

Diaz wrote to the Duval superintendent asking why the book was removed, and expressing concern about the district’s review process as required by HB 1467, which mandates that any library or instructional books must be reviewed by a district employee with a valid educational media specialist certificate, to make sure that they don’t contain porn or banned lessons on racism.

“As the end of the school year quickly approaches, it is of the utmost importance that you immediately review your process for making reading materials available for students,” Diaz said in the letter, obtained by Education Week. “Florida students deserve to be in a district where literacy is a priority, and where providing books for students is at the forefront of teaching and learning.”

The next morning, the district approved the book to be returned to shelves, Diaz said.

“Duval County Public Schools will continue this intensive process of reviewing books both to comply with state laws and to ensure teachers and school leaders do not have to worry about jeopardizing their career because a book may be construed to be in violation of Florida law,” the district wrote on its website, clarifying the book review process.

Last year, books were banned in at least 32 states, including Florida, according to a tracker by PEN America, a free speech advocacy organization. Educators and librarians have consistently said it is states’ restrictive laws and potentially harsh penalties that have caused book bans.

“It’s disingenuous to say that the state’s not responsible when they’ve created laws and regulations that have created an environment of fear, of civil liability, loss of jobs, loss of teaching licenses, if a line is crossed,” said Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom.

“Certainly the state has a large response to the large share of the responsibility for what is occurring in the school libraries and classrooms in Florida.”

At the press conference, DeSantis, Diaz, and other speakers, which included members of the politically conservative parent group Moms for Liberty, emphasized that the only books that should be banned in Florida will be the ones containing “pornography,” referring to books about LGBTQ topics and sex education books, and books containing banned concepts such as critical race theory, because they promote indoctrination.

Laws on race, sexual and gender identity and restrictions on library materials

Florida is one of 18 states that has passed laws restricting lessons on race and racism, and classroom discussions about gender identity and sexual orientation. The “Stop W.O.K.E” Act, passed last year, bans teachers from teaching lessons or holding class discussions that would make students feel “guilt or anguish” for past actions committed by their race.

Florida’s law specifically bans critical race theory, which some Republican lawmakers use as an umbrella term to target equity initiatives, and teachings about systemic racism. At the press conference, Diaz said critical race theory was “rooted in Marxism.”

“We don’t want this in any of our schools because we don’t want to divide our kids and teach them to hate each other, or to hate our country,” he said.

Another law, officially known as the Parental Rights in Education law, that critics have labeled the “Don’t Say Gay” law, restricts education about gender identity and sexual orientation for K-3 students, and mandates that such education be developmentally appropriate for older students.

Both these laws have been cited as reasons for the removal of books by teachers, administrators, or librarians, or for book challenges by parents.

Florida also mandates librarians to go through training to avoid selecting books and instructional materials that violate any of these laws, and to “err on the side of caution,” while making their selections.

“The best way of assuring that no bans take place is to rescind those laws and regulations and allow education professionals, library professionals to do the job they know how to do best,” Caldwell-Stone from the ALA said. “And to serve their communities of students and their parents.”

See also

Books packed up in a cardboard box.
Patrick Daxenbichler/iStock/Getty

The position educators and librarians are in

The recent rhetoric from DeSantis and Diaz has left teachers and librarians even more confused about what’s allowed in libraries, and what isn’t, according to Reagan Miller, a mom and leader of the Florida Freedom To Read Project, a grassroots parent group that opposes book bans.

“Because the laws are vague, everybody’s confused and everybody’s a little scared,” Miller said. “Everybody’s hearing that there’s a threat of a third degree felony, you could lose your teaching license. Nobody wants that to be them.”

Cassandra Palelis, press secretary for the Florida Department of Education, said “the State of Florida does not ban books” in an emailed statement to EdWeek.

“There is not a banned book list,” Palelis said. “Any bare bookshelves in a media center or classroom are simply staged for political messaging.”

Most district leaders and school board members want to keep books on school library shelves, based on her conversations with educators across the state, Miller said.

“Most of our school board members and our superintendents are really good people that want our kids to have access to the information that they need and want,” she said. “And so I certainly wish the governor and the DOE would take a backseat and allow our locally elected school board members to do their job.”

DeSantis argues sex education books are ‘pornography’

The press conference last week started with DeSantis playing a video containing excerpts from graphic novels based on real experiences—such as Flamer by Mike Curato and GenderQueer by Maia Kobabe, sex education books such as Let’s talk about it: The Teen’s Guide to Sex, Relationships, and Being a Human (A Graphic Novel) by Erika Moen and Matthew Nolan, and Milk and Honey, a collection of poems by Rupi Kaur.

The video called all of these books pornography, and said they should be banned for pushing an agenda on children.

“It’s just this excerpt with no connotation, but then they make the conversation die by saying this is sinful, this is pornography,” said Kathleen Daniels, president of the Florida Association of Media in Education, or FAME, which is the state’s professional organization for librarians.

So far, none of the books highlighted in the video have officially been called pornography, although many districts have removed them from library shelves. Many of the objections noted in the video DeSantis played were to illustrated depictions of gay sex and transgender people.

“I think though there is a concerted effort to bring some of this sexualization into the classroom, particularly in these young grades,” DeSantis said.

“Even when you’re talking about 12, 13-year-olds, to see some of that stuff in there, I think most parents would say absolutely not. Parents can have those discussions when they think it’s appropriate with their kid, but to have that [in schools] is wrong.”

Miller from the Freedom to Read Project said choices about these books can be left up to parents, but should not be mandated by the government.

“An important point that I think many people miss is that these are library books. They are self-selected, independent reading,” she said.

“If you are a parent that is so determined that you don’t want your children to ever read that material, you have the right to tell them, to tell the school that you don’t want them to.”

What districts and school boards should do to address book challenges

All districts should have a written policy for collection development and material selection in place that creates the criteria for choosing what books should be in the library, Caldwell-Stone said. The policy should also include a process to fairly address the concern of a parent about the contents of a book, and generally, that policy will allow the book to be evaluated in light of the criteria for selection, and the district’s collection development policy.

But, with so many books in Florida under threat because of the laws, having thoughtful reconsideration policies in place, as per the ALA’s recommendations, is the only solution that has proven to be successful in Florida, Daniels from FAME said.

“If there’s a challenge, keep the book on the shelf until the [reconsideration] committee decides that it shouldn’t be,” Daniels said.

“The counties that are actually following that have been able to put back books on the shelves.”

The American Library Association recommends that a committee should consist of a teacher, a building level administrator, a school librarian, a reading specialist or language arts teacher, and a member of the community.

Daniels also said districts should limit how many challenges can be submitted at a time, and whether it’s as a district as a whole or per school. For example, in Escambia County, Fla., an English teacher challenged more than 100 books for explicit sexual content and inappropriate language, including And Tango Makes Three, a picture book meant for elementary readers, which was allegedly challenged because it’s about two male penguins at a zoo who adopt a baby penguin.

Book challenges should have to be school-specific, Daniels said, because not every book is available at each school.

“Especially in large districts, there’s no way that somebody at my site can have the exact same population and needs and wants as somebody an hour away, but we’re in the same district,” she said.

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