Florida schools got hundreds of book complaints — mostly from 2 people

A year’s worth of records suggests the state’s book banning movement is narrow in scope.

Tampa Bay Times | By Ian Hodgson | August 24, 2023

The topics came up again and again in hundreds of book complaints received by Florida school districts over the last year.

Indoctrination. Pedophilia. The LGBTQ+ agenda.

Those who submitted the complaints say the books in questioncan harm children, and they want them removed from school libraries.

But while their movement has grabbed headlines, it may not be widespread. Most of Florida’s 67 school districts didn’t log a single formal complaint about a book. That’s based on a Tampa Bay Times analysis, the most comprehensive review of book complaints across the state.

Of the roughly 1,100 complaints recordedin Florida since July 2022, more than 700 came from two counties — Escambia in the western Panhandle and Clay near Jacksonville. Together the two districts make up less than 3% of the state’s total public school enrollment.

About 600 of the complaints came from two people — a Clay County dad and a Pensacola high school teacher.

The data illustrates how a tiny minorityof activists across the state can overwhelm school districts while shaping the national conversation over what books belong on school library shelves.

The Times requested all book complaints received by Florida school districts since July 1, 2022, when guidelines governing the challenges went into effect. Sixty-two districtsresponded, representing nearly 99% of public school students.

The law required districts to report complaints to the Florida Department of Education no later than June 30. The data, once compiled by the state, is intended as a reference for school districts to consider as they decide which books to keep. The complaints reviewed by the Times involve 680 books by more than 480 authors.

The state’s 10 largest districts, including Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco, each reported complaints on fewer than 15 titles.

“Totally hijacked”

A collection of complaints submitted by Bruce Friedman and Vicki Baggett. The two Floridians accounted for more than half of the roughly 1,100 complaints reviewed by the Tampa Bay Times.
A collection of complaints submitted by Bruce Friedman and Vicki Baggett. The two Floridians accounted for more than half of the roughly 1,100 complaints reviewed by the Tampa Bay Times. [ photo illustration by Sean Kristoff-Jones | Times ]

Bruce Friedman, a 57-year-old New York City transplant, is responsible for more than 400 complaints received by theClay County school district. He told Fox News that his interest in education stems from the “considerable harm” done to his now-15-year-old son while attending New York’s public schools.

He founded the Florida chapter of No Left Turn in Education, which opposes “progressive indoctrination” in schools, after watching a segment about the group on Tucker Carlson’s show.

Friedman garnered his own appearance on Fox News after his mic was cut at a November school board meeting as he prepared to read a passage from “Lucky,” Alice Sebold’s 1999 memoir of her own sexual assault.

Since then, Friedman said he has spent hundreds of hours combing through a database of more than5,000 titles scoured from the internet and filing complaints for those he finds objectionable. He declined to be interviewed for this story.

Many of Friedman’s written complaints provide little more explanation than “Protect Children!” and “Damaged Souls!” Some of his filed complaintsappear to be direct photocopies with only the title and authors changed, the Times found.

“We have probably spent more resources on Bruce than anyone else in the history of the school district,” said Roger Dailey, Clay County’s assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction. He said Friedman contacts the district nearly every day. Dailey received two messages from Friedman while on a phone call with the Times.

Roger Dailey [ Clay County District Schools ]

“I’ve had weeks totally hijacked by this book thing,” said Dailey, who personally reviews each of the complaints received by the school district — a task that typically takes 10 to 15 hours per week.

More staffing would help, but the budget is tight and few would want the job anyway, Dailey said. Whatever his decision on a book complaint, he said he’s branded as either a “jack-booted censor” or an enabler who put the “bad book back on the shelf.”

“It’s not a responsibility I feel comfortable delegating,” he said.

Dailey conceded that Friedman has found objectively problematic books, clearly in violation of state law. As a parent of three, he said he often gets where Friedman is coming from.

The district removed 181 titles as of June 30, including “Watchmen,” Alan Moore’s 1986 graphic novel depicting often ultraviolent and morally ambiguous superheroes.

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