Pinellas school district faces pushback over its ban of ‘The Bluest Eye’

Some contend the administration ignored its own procedures for reviewing challenged books.
Dan Evans, chief academic officer for Pinellas County Schools, tells school board members why the district removed the Toni Morrison novel "The Bluest Eye" from all high schools during a board meeting on Jan. 24.
Dan Evans, chief academic officer for Pinellas County Schools, tells school board members why the district removed the Toni Morrison novel "The Bluest Eye" from all high schools during a board meeting on Jan. 24. [ Pinellas County Schools ]
Published Feb. 1|Updated Feb. 1

The Pinellas County school district is facing pointed questions after sidestepping its formal procedure last week when it banned Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye” from all high schools.

The procedure calls for several steps to be taken when parents object to books in schools. But when a Palm Harbor parent complained about passages in the book, those measures were not taken.

“That should have been the process that we went through” for Morrison’s book, school board member Carol Cook said Tuesday. “I don’t think our procedure was followed.”

She’s not alone.

“They didn’t follow the policy,” said Nancy Velardi, Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association president. “That’s clear.”

Related: Pinellas schools remove book by prize-winning author Toni Morrison

The district policy on instructional materials states that when a resident or parent objects to the use of a book for a child other than their own, they “must file the objections in writing” on a specific form. That form is to go to the school principal, who is to convene a School Based Instructional Materials Review Committee comprised of three faculty members, two parents, two community members and the school media specialist.

The material is to remain in circulation until the committee conducts a review and issues its findings in writing.

If the complainant is dissatisfied with the outcome, they can appeal to a District Committee for Challenged Materials, which is to include two PTA representatives, two community members, three teachers and a nonvoting chairperson. The decision of that committee is to be the final word.

The school board reauthorized the policy on the same night the district announced it was pulling ”The Bluest Eye” out of the schools. Officials reviewing the procedure said it was important enough to refer to it multiple times in the policy manual, to ensure everyone knows how book challenges are supposed to take place.

Associate Superintendent Dan Evans acknowledged that none of those steps were taken. Still, he defended the administration’s action.

“Outside of that formal process, principals within a school-based process can always review materials that come to their attention,” Evans said.

A parent complained to Palm Harbor University High about “The Bluest Eye,” Evans said, and initially sought to remain anonymous in raising concerns. That parent, Michelle Stille, later posted across social media her objections to a scene in the book depicting the rape of an 11-year-old girl by her father, among other scenes.

The Palm Harbor principal met with teachers and the media specialist, Evans said, and opted not to have the book in the school. It had been part of an Advanced Placement course, which on the syllabus offered an alternate title to students, according to the district.

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“This is not inconsistent with our normal process for reviewing items that come to our attention,” Evans said.

Questions about the book arrived at the district around the same time that the Department of Education issued new materials, based on state rule and law, regarding how to select books that are age-appropriate, Evans said.

The materials included language about erring on the side of caution, and veering away from books that include passages a teacher would not feel comfortable reading aloud in public. It also said schools should consider books for their literary value, and not solely based on passages.

“We believe we made a decision that is consistent with the new state rules and clarifications,” Evans said of taking “The Bluest Eye” out of all high schools without a formal review at the other schools or by the district committee.

The law, adopted last year, states that school boards are ultimately responsible for all materials made available to students. It further requires boards to provide a process for public review of and public comment on the materials.

The Florida Freedom to Read Project has requested public records to determine what happened in this instance.

Cook said she planned to meet with Superintendent Kevin Hendrick on Wednesday to discuss the process, and why steps seemed to have been skipped. Velardi said she and some school media specialists scheduled a meeting with administrators on Friday to register their opposition and seek solutions going forward.

Evans said he saw nothing wrong with the district’s actions on “The Bluest Eye.” At the same time, he said, “we’re all going to go through the (state) training. As a result of that training, we will want to review our process.”

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