Florida school districts removed roughly 300 books last school year

The removed titles include dozens of books with LGBTQ topics or characters and several winners of prestigious book awards, including the Pulitzer Prize.

NBC News | By Matt Lavietes | September 12, 2023

Florida school districts removed approximately 300 books from library shelves last school year, according to a list of “removed or discontinued materials” that was quietly released by the state’s education department late last month.

The removals were prompted by more than 1,200 objections raised by parents of public school students or other Florida residents, according to a 16-page Florida Department of Education document that included the book list

The discontinued titles include dozens of books containing LGBTQ themes or characters, including the award-winning memoirs “Gender Queer” and “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” as well as the illustrated children’s books “A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo” and “And Tango Makes Three.” Other books on the list include Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer-winning novel “Beloved,” Bernard Malamud’s National Book-winning novel “The Fixer” and Margaret Atwood’s Booker Prize-winning novel “The Testaments.”

In response to an email from NBC News seeking comment on the list and referring to the removed titles as “banned books,” Caily Myers, a spokesperson for the Florida Department of Education, said, “Florida does not ban books.”

“The list comprises information provided by each school district of the books they removed based on objections from a parent or resident of the county using their district’s process,” she said, adding that this is the first year the state’s education department has collected information on the book objections school districts received.

Out of Florida’s 67 counties, school districts in 21 counties removed books in the last school year, with five districts removing more than 10 books. Clay County, in the northeastern part of the state, banned the most titles, with 177 removals, followed by Martin County, in the southeast, with 98 removals.

Jennifer DeShazo, a spokesperson for the Martin County School District, said the district removed the books in order to comply with the implementation of the Parental Rights in Education act, which critics have dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” law. The measure, which took effect in July of last year, restricts the instruction of LGBTQ issues in the state’s schools. 

While schools in Martin County cannot offer students any of the 98 books on the district’s list, DeShazo said students are permitted to bring their own personal copies from home. 

A spokesperson for the Clay County School District also cited Florida’s so-called Don’t Say Gay law along with Florida House Bill 1467 — which permits parents or residents of a Florida county to submit challenges to school books and was enacted last year — in response to a request for comment regarding the district’s 177 book removals. 

The spokesperson, Terri Dennis, said in an email that one county resident was responsible for “approximately 94%” of the book challenges. 

A spokesperson for the School District of Manatee County, which removed 25 books from its schools’ shelves last school year, also pointed to House Bill 1467 in response to a request for comment regarding the removals. 

Representatives for the two other school districts that removed more than 10 books — Flagler Schools, which removed 11 books, and the School District of Osceola County, which removed 21 titles — did not immediately reply to requests for comment.

The Parental Rights in Education act, which was signed by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis last year, prohibited the instruction at public schools of sexual orientation or gender identity “in kindergarten through grade 3 or in a manner that is not age appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards.” The law was expanded this year to ban the instruction in prekindergarten through eighth grade.

A spokesperson for DeSantis, who is currently traveling the country in his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, did not respond to a request for comment.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second-largest teachers union, condemned the state’s efforts to remove books, saying that the bans are “hurting the kids.”

“People ban books in this kind of way when they are afraid of knowledge and when they are afraid of people learning about each other and learning about differences,” Weingarten said. “What they’re doing is they’re saying that one small group of people who want to turn back the clock to thwart knowledge are more important than the vast number of parents who don’t want this to happen.”

At least two lawsuits have been filed against Florida school districts that have removed books containing LGBTQ content. In May, a group led by the publishing company Penguin Random House and PEN America, a nonprofit group that advocates for free expression in literature, sued the Escambia County School District for removing 10 books related to race and LGBTQ identities. And in June, a group of students, parents and authors sued Lake County’s school district for removing “And Tango Makes Three,” a children’s book about two gay penguins who raise a baby penguin together. 

Book bans go beyond Florida, with the the American Library Association’s latest book censorship report finding that 2022 had the highest number of attempted book bans since the organization began tracking such attempts in 2001. The association found that more than half of the 13 books on its “Most Challenged Books” list last year — including three of the top four — were challenged for having LGBTQ themes.

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