Florida’s House speaker intervenes in Hillsborough school book challenge

State Rep. Paul Renner requests documents, alleging that some books on district shelves are “clearly obscene.”
Florida House Speaker Paul Renner, center, is asking for documents and questioning the book selection process in Hillsborough County Public Schools.
Florida House Speaker Paul Renner, center, is asking for documents and questioning the book selection process in Hillsborough County Public Schools.
Published Feb. 3, 2023|Updated Feb. 3, 2023

A book challenge at a Hillsborough County middle school has attracted the attention of a leading Republican lawmaker who is concerned about reading materials that critics call “obscene.”

Florida House Speaker Paul Renner, R-Palm Coast, announced Friday that he has requested records from Hillsborough County public school officials regarding reading materials available in school libraries.

“The request seeks to understand the decision-making processes for allowing such materials to be made available to young children and how school officials address parental objections,” Renner said in his statement.

“While the vast majority of reading and educational materials in our school libraries are age-appropriate, some books are so clearly obscene and directed to children that they would be rejected by adult bookstores.”

Renner noted that, with nearly half of Hillsborough students reading below grade level, “we must focus all our energies on prioritizing learning and teaching the core skills — math, reading, writing — to unleash the full potential of every child.”

His request comes amid a challenge at Pierce Middle School to “This Book Is Gay,” a nonfiction work about sexuality and gender by Juno Dawson. The Amazon website describes the book as a “candid, funny, and uncensored exploration of sexuality and what it’s like to grow up LGBTQ.”

The initial challenge came from an elementary school parent who then was joined by another parent active in the library book issue, said Superintendent Addison Davis, who received Renner’s request for information late Thursday.

A school-based review committee upheld Pierce Middle’s decision to make the book available to students, said Davis, who issued a formal statement describing the process. The next step is a districtwide committee. After that, if the challenger is still dissatisfied, the matter would go to the school board.

Renner requested detailed information about the challenge at Pierce, and how the committee reached the conclusion to keep the book in the school media center.

Davis said of Renner’s letter, “This is a public records request for us. We will entertain it. We will make sure we gather all the right documentation.”

He said he intends to honor the existing book challenge process in spite of pressure from some conservative organizations to remove any books with sexual content or LGBTQ themes. Last week, Pinellas County district leaders decided to remove Toni Morrison’s novel “The Bluest Eye” from high school media centers without going through that district’s complete review process.

Pinellas leaders said they were acting in an abundance of caution as districts await detailed instructions from the state on how to comply with Florida’s new Parental Rights in Education Law.

That’s in contrast to Hillsborough, where Davis said Friday: “I don’t have the ability to remove books. There is a procedure in place that we have to follow. We will follow the integrity of that procedure. Whether it’s my personal view or not, we have to follow procedures relevant to this process.”

Davis also responded to Renner’s remarks about Hillsborough students’ reading levels. “As relates to talking about performance of our students in Hillsborough County, we made tremendous gains over the last couple of years,” he said.

“Hats off to our teachers, our leaders, our support staff and their commitment to this process,” he said. “Ultimately, we’ll make certain our students are educated and that they have appropriate grade-level content in front of them every day.”

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