LARGO — Confronted by complaints over the removal of Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye,” Pinellas County school district officials said they will give the book another look.
But not right away.
Instead, the district administration will ask a committee of media specialists to determine whether the novel is appropriate for high schools during a review of all books questioned throughout the school year. The district convened a similar committee over the summer to look at 94 books, with five being pulled off the shelves and five placed in an adults-only section.
“That group will meet next quarter and they will review ‘The Bluest Eye’ and other titles that have been moved or reviewed this year,” Superintendent Kevin Hendrick said.
Hendrick and his team explained its approach to the School Board during a workshop Tuesday. He stressed that the district makes decisions about books and other materials all the time without getting the same type of scrutiny that came with the decision about “The Bluest Eye.”
He said the goal is to formalize a process for the district to have its certified media specialists annually review such moves and “give us feedback if we made the right decision.” It also will include a look at books that haven’t been used in the district previously.
Board member Dawn Peters asked if there was a way to get the general public involved in reviewing the materials. Hendrick said the law requires that media specialists must do the work.
Board member Caprice Edmond noted that the district’s policy states that a person with complaints about a book must file a formal challenge to get a review. She asked what would happen if no one follows through, as occurred with the Toni Morrison novel.
Hendrick said the district prefers to receive the form, but not having one “doesn’t relieve the district of responsibility to follow the law” regarding book content.
Toward that end, chief academic officer Dan Evans told the board that the district has created a new process for reviewing all books in teachers’ classroom libraries. Teachers are to conduct inventories of those materials beginning after spring break, consulting with media specialists to make sure items are appropriate for the grades they teach and the ages of students at their schools.
Those lists will be searchable online by classroom, district library media coordinator Bronwyn Slack said.
The district also will give parents more input on what their children can access, Evans told the board.
In addition to allowing parents to opt out of individual titles in the libraries, as has occurred in the past, the district will let parents either opt out of library book checkouts entirely or permit withdrawals only after parent permission for each book.
“We want to continue to be mindful of our parents’ concerns and respect that,” Evans said.
Board member Laura Hine told administrators to encourage teachers to submit all classroom library books that they have questions about to their media specialists for review. She said the same about materials they want to use for courses.
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This year, Hine suggested, too many teachers have self-censored items. “There have been a lot of novels that have not been assigned,” she said.
Hendrick acknowledged that was happening, and said it was incumbent on the district staff to make sure that teachers understand the process and how to work with it rather than fear it. Peters said she had heard from teachers with similar concerns, adding that she has told them to talk to their media specialists and principals rather than removing books.
Board member Eileen Long asked what might happen if one school leaves a book on its shelves while another pulls it.
“The law allows for that,” Hendrick said.
Evans asked the board to be patient with the staff as it navigates implementation of the new state laws that changed the book review and challenge rules.
“There is no perfect process. What we’re learning is we are in the middle of an evolving conversation around the state,” he said, stressing that the educators charged with the responsibility are up to the task. “We trust their professionalism and their judgment in this work.”
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