With the start of classes fast approaching and a single goal in mind, 19 Pinellas County school librarians hunkered down over a stack of books for nearly nine hours over two days last week.
They aimed to recommend to their peers and principals how to best use the 94 titles, in light of new Florida laws governing the selection of books and the instruction of race, sex and gender issues. State guidelines on how to review the materials won’t arrive for months, but few expect the challenges to wait.
The district wanted to get ahead of the wave.
“We have 131 school library media programs,” district library services coordinator Bronwyn Slack said. “We had to start talking about this in a real way.”
Concerns have grown among educators throughout the state about how to navigate the added restrictions lawmakers placed on them over the spring. They face potential lawsuits over the things they say and the items they make available to children, so they’re seeking whatever advice they can get to follow the law while also providing truthful lessons and a broad array of materials.
Creating a book review procedure that all schools can eventually use was a critical first piece of the puzzle for Pinellas leaders. Last year, the district raised eyebrows with its removal of the graphic novel “Gender Queer” without following a set process.
“This is an activity that we have talked about before,” Slack said. “We have never had people participate in such a way.”
The committee set its baseline with three sets of books — lists created for the Sunshine State Young Readers Award and Florida Teen Reads, which can be used for the annual Battle of the Books, and names submitted for consideration by members of the public. The latter group of 35 included some of the materials that have been challenged in other Florida districts over the past year, such as “And Tango Makes 3,” “Being Jazz” and “Antiracist Baby.”
One objective was to keep as many books as possible on the shelves, not requiring them but leaving room for children and parents to choose them if they wish. A handful were recommended for removal, and a few were suggested to be offered to different grade levels.
“We have not banned any books,” Slack said. “But we do have to know the difference between what books would be better in a different setting.”
Slack said the initiative began with directions for instructional materials adoption that have been in state law for years. Under those rules, educators must consider factors such as whether a book appeals to student interests and what its theme, message or educational purpose is, particularly for nonfiction items.
The group additionally looked for controversial aspects such as profanity and sexual situations, determining whether those were prevalent or part of the plot, and if they have literary value. Diversity factors and age-appropriateness also were part of the equation.
“Committee members wanted to know specifically, ‘What are we looking for?’” Slack said. “I wanted them to read it from a professional perspective.”
Lawmakers mandated that trained media specialists review every book being purchased, donated or otherwise provided for school use.
Pinellas Park High School media specialist Ginger Brengle sat on the panel. She said she appreciated that professionals who studied how to create a collection were provided time to collaborate in a meaningful way.
School board member Laura Hine said she heard similar sentiments from others who participated. Hine said she was pleased the panel had the opportunity to look at the books in depth, getting beyond the literary reviews and publisher descriptions they often rely upon when selecting large numbers of new books.
As a parent of two elementary-aged children, Hine said she welcomed having closer attention paid to the items that land in students’ hands. Without a rating system similar to movies, she said, trained educators’ recommendations can help families make decisions.
Similarly, she added, having input from parents and the community also informs the effort. “We should have that kind of feedback loop,” she said.
After their review, the committee members agreed to recommend removing five books from circulation. Those included “Tricks,” a young adult novel about teen prostitutes, and “It’s Perfectly Normal,” a children’s picture book about sex.
Slack said the first book might reflect someone’s real-life experience, but its literary value has not withstood time. The latter addresses a topic that is not taught at the grade level for which it is intended, she said, so the schools don’t need the book.
“There’s a place for the book in the public library or at home,” Slack said.
The committee also called for placing five books — mostly dealing with race, gender and political activism — into a staff-only library while awaiting further information from the state about teaching those issues. Those included “Call Me Max” and “What Is White Privilege?”
Slack stressed that these are all recommendations going to schools, where principals are responsible for ensuring that state laws on book selection are followed. The district also sent a memo to the principals advising that they have all teachers review their classroom libraries during the first grading period.
The memo said graphic novels depicting violence, nudity or sexual activity should be set aside for removal, along with K-3 books related to gender identity or sexuality. It further directed that each book on a recommended reading list or assignment must be reviewed individually, with alternatives provided.
Community reaction to the district’s effort was mixed.
Julia Sharp, whose children are in first and third grades, supports the Florida’s Freedom to Read Project, a group advocating for school libraries and curriculum to offer broad access to materials. While she agreed that students deserve access to age-appropriate books, she viewed the district’s initiative as a step toward censorship.
If parents have a problem with a book, she said, “they can request that their child not be able to take the book out of the library.” But they should not be able to make that decision for other families, Sharp added.
She criticized the state for forcing this type of activity onto the schools, saying they have better things to do.
Angela Dubach, president of the Moms for Liberty Pinellas chapter, sent several titles on the list to the district for consideration. She said she was not asking for any books to be removed, just to make sure they are age-appropriate.
“I am super excited they are reviewing them,” Dubach said.
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