LARGO — Taylor Trautwein sat in the crowded auditorium where the Pinellas County School Board met Tuesday, reading Toni Morrison’s novel “The Bluest Eye.”
The Palm Harbor University High junior said she was reading the book, which district officials banned from her AP literature course and all high school libraries, in part to demonstrate her opposition to censorship.
“When you can’t read about things, you can’t learn them,” said Trautwein, who came to the board meeting with dozens of other students, teachers, parents and other residents who opposed the book ban announced in January.
Speaker by speaker, they argued that the district should not have removed the book based on the complaint of one parent without discussing the implications publicly. They argued that the book is literature, and that it plays an important role in understanding uncomfortable truths.
Palm Harbor junior Eliza Lane contended that the rape scene that raised concerns, which takes up less than two pages, is one of violence, not arousal.
“It is not pornography,” she said, knocking a key complaint from those who oppose the book.
She and others asked for reconsideration.
“You have discretion,” parent Charles Hinton told the board, arguing that the state’s new directive to “err on the side of caution” when reviewing school materials is vague.
“We don’t want to offend people. I get that,” he said. “If the standard is going to be that it does not make anyone uncomfortable, then we are not doing the job of preparing our children.”
No one in the audience Tuesday asked for the book to remain off the shelves.
Having faced an onslaught of criticism since making his decision, Superintendent Kevin Hendrick tried to get in front of the issue by explaining his rationale during his report to the board.
He said what he and others have said previously — that the state law and rules changed recently, adding new definitions schools must consider when reviewing books for age appropriateness.
Hendrick said he believes in providing diverse materials to students. He said he trusts the district’s media specialists and teachers to do right by students. And he said he backs parent rights.
“Ultimately,” he said, “we have a responsibility to follow the law.”
To comply, Hendrick said he planned to bring a revised book challenge and review procedure to the board later in the spring.
Board attorney David Koperski backed Hendrick, saying that the administration has a responsibility to implement the laws, even when no formal complaint is filed. He noted that the parent who wanted “The Bluest Eye” removed never submitted the form to challenge it.
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“If someone doesn’t fill the form out does that mean … someone in the district cannot review the materials? Of course not,” Koperski said.
Members of the audience, many who came from the International Baccalaureate programs at Palm Harbor and Largo high schools, struggled to accept the notion that the district could ignore its procedure because the person with the complaint also ignored it.
Mary Siesky, a retired Collier County teacher whose grandchild is in the AP literature course at Palm Harbor, suggested that maybe the answer is to file a formal complaint that requires a public debate while the book remains available. She said she knew plenty of people who would do it.
Students who organized to protest the book’s removal said the community should be given the opportunity to weigh in, and to have their views considered by informed discussion. Palm Harbor senior Andrew Larsen said he found in talking with administrators who made the decision that they acted in haste and they “seemed unaware of the book’s content in general.”
“I oversee what my children read. Not someone else,” added parent Nicole St. Leger. “When books are removed and banned, or have a change of status, that is the exact opposite of parental rights.”
The debate was important enough for Salma Hassan, a Mildred Helms Elementary fourth grader, to attend with her mom, Largo High English teacher Jennifer Wilson. Each wore a T-shirt with the words “I’m with the banned” on the front.
“I wanted to support the books,” Salma said, gripping a copy of “The Last Apprentice: The Spook’s Tale and Other Horrors” she got from her school library. “Kids need to learn about these different things.”
Wilson said she took a personal day to go to the meeting with her daughter and some of her students. She said educators need to take a stand against the attack against public schools and what they teach.
“The charges that are being leveled against the books have nothing to do with the books,” Wilson said, calling them “dog whistles ... supporting fascist causes.”
“It feels we are approaching a new level of attacks on our liberty,” Wilson said.
As the meeting ended, the group said they felt good about the presentations. But they wondered if they were effective.
“I hope the school board actually listened to the public feedback,” Largo High senior Quinlen Burns said. “It’s important for us students to make our voices heard.”
Board chairperson Lisa Cane said the session gave her something to think about.
“What happens now, I’m not really sure,” Cane said. “We need to digest the comments that were made and ask some very serious questions at the next workshop.”
Board member Dawn Peters said the students impressed her as well-spoken, confident, passionate and respectful.
Still, she said, “at the end of the day, we have to yield to our attorney and our superintendent in following the law. There are a lot of controversial issues they need to read to navigate our world. But I stand by our district’s decision in this case.”
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