Leon County School Board votes to keep ‘I am Billie Jean King’ book on library shelves

Tallahassee Democrat | By Alaijah Brown | July 24, 2023

The Leon County School Board voted unanimously in a special meeting Monday to follow the recommendation from a hearing officer on the status of the book “I am Billie Jean King” following a challenge hearing in June.

“This book is not about that she’s gay, the theme is about championing equality,” Vice Chair Rosanne Wood said during Monday’s meeting. “And this is so important for our young people to be able to read and hear.”

Katie Lyons, the Tallahassee mother who submitted the challenge, said her daughter, then a second grader at a local elementary school, brought home the children’s book about King, a tennis legend who is gay — and also brought questions to her mother about a page regarding King’s sexual orientation.

“It is important that it be made clear that this book was challenged not because the book mentions Billie Jean King is gay,” Lyons told the school board at a meeting on July 14. “The book was challenged because it defines sexual orientation. Regardless of orientation, homosexual or heterosexual, the topic of sexual orientation is not age-appropriate or developmentally-appropriate for elementary students.”

While much of Lyons’ case presented in June argued that the book was a violation of the law under the definition of instructional material, board members decided at the beginning of Monday’s meeting that the book does not qualify as instructional material.

Retired principal D.J. Wright, the hearing officer chosen by the Leon County School District, recommended the district keep the book on elementary school shelves.

“It is my opinion that removing ‘I am Billie Jean King’ from elementary schools infringes on the rights of parents who want their children to learn about Ms. King and the many contributions she has made to our country,” Wright wrote in her recommendation.

In her recommendation, Wright counters that the book isn’t used as “instruction” and pointed to a clarification the Florida Department of Education issued stating that “incidental references” in books to LGBTQ people are not prohibited.

Wright also said a new law, HB 1069, directed each school district to adopt processes allowing parents to limit their child’s access to library material.

“This seems to be a reasonable approach because it grants parents the means to restrict access to material they find objectionable while granting access to children of parents who find the material acceptable,” she said.

Following LCS policy, the board’s decision is final and will not continue the petition. However, Lyons, who was not present could take the petition to the Department of Education who would then assign a special master to further investigate on the school board’s dime.

Springwood Elementary School first grade teacher Shari Gewanter says that she is happy about the board’s decision but haunted about the daunting task of scanning each of her books in her classroom library for approval.

“I think that Leon County Schools is being very deliberate and very thoughtful about how we are evaluating our literature in our schools, as we always have. The guidelines have changed over time and so we use those guidelines now to assess the books that we’re sharing with our children,” Gewanter told the Tallahassee Democrat after Monday’s meeting. “I have no problems with it other than the time that it’s going to take for me to reassess books that I’ve used for 25 years.”

This is the first time Florida’s capital city school district has gone through the book challenge process after Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law last year’s Curriculum Transparency Act, requiring districts to catalog every book on their shelves and put a formal review process in place for complaints.

Earlier in the month, though, Leon County Schools Superintendent Rocky Hanna pulled five books from high school libraries following complaints from a local chapter of the conservative group Moms for Liberty.

While neither Florida Department of Education nor the governor’s office have called for any bans on books, titles have been purged and restricted in school libraries across the state.

And recent legislation, HB 1069, that took effect July 1 has book access advocates worried it will intensify.

Kathleen Malloy, Leon County Schools’ coordinator for instructional materials, indicated that may be the case, saying last week that even William Shakespeare’s works could be “suspect” under that law.

Malloy says she and other media specialists around the state are interpreting the law to mean that districts could be breaking the law if they do not pull media that contains the state’s definition of “sexual conduct.”

“If there were one or two small scenes in a book that we were not necessarily comfortable with, but the overall part of the book was really very valuable as a piece of literature, contributed to what students learned and so on, then I would look at that small percentage and be able to make a decision about a purchase,” Malloy said. “That’s changed.”

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