Tampa Bay schools grapple with evolving rules on book removals

Pinellas County reviews 87 books and keeps them all, while Hillsborough waits for more state direction.

Tampa Bay Times | By Jeffrey S. Solochek | July 12, 2023

Pinellas County school officials won’t be banning any books this week. Neither will their counterparts in Hillsborough County.

But the similarities end there as the neighboring school districts grapple with evolving state rules on book challenges, each taking a different approach.

In Pinellas, a two-day review of 87 titles by the district’s Library Media Review Team ended Tuesday without any being rejected for use in the schools, according to one of the team members. The group determined which grade levels would be most appropriate for the books, most of which are new to the district.

It flagged fewer than five of the high school level books for further consideration of whether to use them for the annual Battle of the Books competition. The concern centered on whether their mentions of relationships and sexual situations might run afoul of a new state law that the Department of Education has yet to issue guidelines about.

The review had come under fire from anti-censorship organizations and several authors, who worried that the district had targeted materials featuring underrepresented characters and themes without having received any objections about them. They said the move amounted to self-censorship, while district officials said they were taking the logical step of reading books before putting them on school shelves.

The organizations’ fears were bolstered Tuesday as Moms for Liberty representatives came to school board meetings in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties to demand the removal of books they deemed pornographic. Neither board did so.

“I feel like someone needs to shine a light into the deep, deep darkness that’s in our school libraries,” Julie Gebhards of Moms for Liberty-Hillsborough told her school board Tuesday, pointing to three titles — “Burned,” “This Book Is Gay” and “Blankets.”

Angela Dubach, chairperson of Moms for Liberty-Pinellas, read a profanity-laced passage about sex from the novel “Push” to her board.

“Anybody who is OK with this in public schools is a pervert groomer,” Dubach said. “This stuff needs to be removed. I’ll help.”

Their comments came on the heels of Leon County’s superintendent unilaterally pulling five books, including “Push,” from his district’s schools after Moms for Liberty complained about their content, as the Tallahassee Democrat reported this week.

After Dubach’s remarks, which came during public comment, Pinellas board members met with the superintendent’s staff for a routine review of how the meeting went. Some of them asked superintendent Kevin Hendrick what he might do with the information she presented.

“We reaffirmed that we will follow our policies,” vice chairperson Laura Hine said Wednesday. “Our policy is still that someone has to fill out the (challenge) form and we will go through the process.”

Laura Hine [ The James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art ]

She noted that the policy, which was revised and readopted in January, is coming back to the board with additional proposed changes during a workshop Tuesday. The new language is based on a law that took effect on July 1.

Among the recommended changes, objections to controversial materials would no longer be reviewed at schools. Instead, any official challenges delivered to a principal would be forwarded to a district committee for consideration.

That committee’s decision would be final, unless appealed to a state magistrate.

The Hillsborough board, by contrast, has delayed its plans for a workshop to discuss book challenges several times in recent months. After receiving a list of about 100 books from a concerned resident, some board members expressed frustration with the inaction.

“This whole wait-and-see mentality is kind of getting old,” board member Stacy Hahn said during Tuesday’s meeting. “I believe there are things we can do to at least show good faith and transparency.”

Stacy Hahn [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

At a minimum, Hahn said, the district could make its current challenge process and forms more prominent on its website. As state rules and guidelines become more clear, she said, the district can update the information.

Board member Patti Rendon took the issue a step further, saying the district should seriously consider

public complaints about specific materials, with or without a formal challenge in hand.

“We need to take responsibility,” Rendon said. “If they have identified a book, we don’t need to wait for them to provide a piece of paper. We can look at what’s going on. We can do our own review.”

Board chairperson Nadia Combs, who has postponed the workshops on controversial materials, argued that the district should have a process that adheres to state law and rule. Waiting for clarity from the state before acting makes sense, she said.

Nadia Combs [ Hillsborough County Public Schools ]

“I want a process that’s going to be here six months, a year or two years,” Combs said. “We can’t just have anyone choosing, ‘Hey, I don’t like this book but I want this book.’ No. Let’s have a process.”

She raised the concern that the debate over books threatens to overshadow the real priority of ensuring children achieve academic success with highly qualified teachers.

“Books are not the enemy,” Combs said.

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