Broward schools memo on banning and restricting library books spurs controversy

South Florida Sun-Sentinel | By Scott Travis | November 3, 2022

Eleven books challenged by a group of conservative parents are either being banned from Broward school libraries or restricted to certain age groups, according to a memo sent to school principals.

Chief Academic Officer Nicole Mancini instructed principals Oct. 25 to share with their library staffs the list of “materials that have been identified for removal or transfer.”

The books were identified by the Broward chapter of the group Moms for Liberty as having sexually explicit content or LGBTQ messages the group says violates the Parental Rights in Education law, which critics have dubbed as “don’t say gay.”

Some opponents of the book restrictions see this as a right-wing move for a school district now controlled by appointees of Gov. Ron DeSantis, but several appointees said they had no knowledge the district was doing this.

Mancini’s memo lists two books that should be removed from all school libraries.

“It’s Perfectly Normal” is a children’s sexual education book that contains “explicit sexual pictures,” according to an Aug. 12 review by a district committee. First published in 1994, it’s been on lists of the most banned books in the country for decades.

The second book, “A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo,” is a fictional story about a pet rabbit of former Vice President Mike Pence who falls in love with a rabbit of the same sex. The book “is inappropriate due to the negativity towards the government,” the committee document said.

Nine other books will be restricted to certain age groups, the memo states.

Only high school libraries will be allowed to have “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison, “This Day in June” by Gayle Pitman, “Killing Mr. Griffin” by Lois Duncan, “The Kite Runner” by Khaled Hosseini, “Sold” by Patricia McCormick and “Lawn Boy” by Jonathan Evison.

One book is restricted to eighth graders and above: “Different Kinds of Fruit” by Kyle Lukoff, while two books are restricted to grades 5 and up: “George” by Alex Gino and “It Feels Good to be Yourself” by Theresa Thorn.

If the district deems certain books appropriate for some grade levels but not others at the same school, the books will be allowed to stay in the libraries, district spokesman John Sullivan said.

“As a common professional practice, the role of the library media specialist and/or media clerk is to monitor the appropriateness of students’ selection of books based on reading level, age appropriateness, and Florida statute,” Sullivan said.

To review the challenged materials, the district formed a committee with a “cross-representation of district personnel, school administrators, and external partners,” Sullivan said.

The complaints from Moms for Liberty listed specific schools where an online catalog listed the books. The district notified those schools shortly after the review committee’s Aug. 12 meeting and alerted all school principals Oct. 25, Sullivan said.

“Going forward, when we have these challenges and we have to make adjustments, we will have more timely districtwide communication,” Sullivan said.

More challenges are expected as the initial list was just “round one,” said Sabrina Artiles, chairwoman of the Broward chapter of Moms for Liberty.

The group champions such conservative causes as opposition to discussions of LGBTQ issues in certain grades and the teaching of critical race theory. They asked that all 11 books be removed entirely from school libraries and classrooms, not just restricted to certain grades.

“The overall goal of Moms for Liberty is that minors should not have access to sexually explicit material without parental consent,” Artiles said, adding the district has no system in place to ensure parents can restrict what materials their children access.

She said she doesn’t consider this practice book banning.

“If a parent wants to buy that book for their child, they have the freedom and liberty to do it on Amazon or all kinds of different bookstores,” Artiles said. “In a school setting, parents are not there to approve certain things and they shouldn’t be accessible.”

The group first made a request June 2 to restrict certain books but said in an Oct. 11 follow-up that no one had responded. Artiles told the South Florida Sun Sentinel she was unaware of the district’s decision on the books until Mancini’s memo started circulating online.

Some liberal critics blasted the decision after Mancini’s memo was shared on social media. They blamed a School Board they say is now controlled by DeSantis.

“Because Broward Schools is now in the pocket of Desantis, we are banning books that are inclusive, have authors from oppressed and marginalized communities and should be available to all [high school] students. #fascist #racist #homophobic #embarassing,” Parkland resident Rosemarie Jensen tweeted.

However, some DeSantis-appointed board members said they had no input or knowledge the school district was restricting these books.

A state law that took effect July 1 gives parents or others the right to challenge the books and requires school districts to come up with a procedure to address these concerns. State law says the School Board must approve a process to review these concerns, but there’s no indication that’s happened.

The intent of the state law “was to increase school district transparency and accountability as well as empowering our parents and teachers through the selection and removal process,” said Ryan Reiter, one of four DeSantis appointees who joined the School Board on Aug. 30.

“I’m not aware of any action that took place prior to August 30th that met the new law’s requirements, but I’m assured this reform board will look into the matter before our time is done,” he said.

Only one DeSantis appointee, Torey Alston, will remain after newly elected board members are sworn in Nov. 22.

The district’s decision to not include the School Board could run afoul of state law that mentions school boards in several steps of the process for book challenges.

“If the district school board finds that an instructional material does not meet the criteria … or that any other material contains prohibited content, … the school district shall discontinue use of the material for any grade level or age group for which such use is inappropriate or unsuitable,” the law states.

The law also says each “district school board” must establish a process of handling books. But Superintendent Vickie Cartwright withdrew a proposed policy related to challenging books at a Sept. 13 meeting and it hasn’t come up again since.

“I think when we get into banning books, we get into really scary territory,” School Board member and new mom Sarah Leonardi said. “As a parent myself, I believe in my right to have a diverse set of pieces of literature available to my child one day.”

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