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Pinellas schools under fire for book review list

Media specialists are scheduled to make recommendations on the titles in July.
 
The Pinellas County school district has released a list of 87 books it is asking its Library Media Review Team to review before placing them in schools. In February, several residents urged the School Board not to ban books from student access, focusing on the administrative decision to remove Toni Morrison's "The Bluest Eye" from courses and libraries.
The Pinellas County school district has released a list of 87 books it is asking its Library Media Review Team to review before placing them in schools. In February, several residents urged the School Board not to ban books from student access, focusing on the administrative decision to remove Toni Morrison's "The Bluest Eye" from courses and libraries. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published June 26, 2023|Updated June 26, 2023

The Pinellas County school district has 87 books it wants its librarians to take a closer look at before making them available for student use.

That list has leaders of the state’s leading anti-censorship group wringing their hands.

“You look at what found its way to this list and what is being reviewed, and it just appears there is this extra hurdle now for diverse authors who write books that they wish they had in school as a kid,” said Stephana Ferrell, co-founder of Orlando-based Florida Freedom to Read Project.

As it did last summer, the district will have its Library Media Review Team evaluate for age and grade appropriateness all books recommended for the Sunshine State Young Readers and Florida Teens Read awards — these are used in competitions such as Battle of the Books. When it meets in early July, the team also will consider several additional titles that officials said other sources questioned as to whether they can be used on reading lists and in classes.

Over the past year, school districts across the state have struggled to meet the requirements of laws that limit instruction on race, gender and sexuality. Media specialists have been charged with approving every book made available to students, ensuring they do not run afoul of these rules on content.

The Pinellas list does not include every new book coming into the district. Beyond the state-recognized titles, it includes 27 others, many of which have characters or themes dealing with minorities and underrepresented social groups.

For instance, “From Here” by Luma Mufleh is described as a coming-of-age memoir of a gay Muslim woman. “We Still Belong” by Christine Day is a novel about a girl’s efforts to celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day. “A Work in Progress” by Jarrett Lerner is a story in verse about an overweight middle school boy’s struggle for self-acceptance.

Pinellas Park High media specialist Ginger Brengle, who will sit on the review team, said she had not heard of many book complaints coming from the community. At the same time, she said, many teachers have worried about placing books in their classrooms without proper vetting against the laws.

Of particular concern are the rules that forbid instruction about race, color, sex or national origin that make someone feel guilt or anguish, and that ban lessons about gender identity or sexual orientation unless specified in state standards. These mandates do not speak directly to library books, which are not required, but many teachers worry they will be interpreted that way.

Superintendent Kevin Hendrick repeatedly has stated his support for culturally diverse materials and lessons, within the standards set by the state. He established the summer book reviews because, he has said, the district needs a formal process to ensure it meets its goals and also reviews its decisions in a professional, consistent manner.

“The district’s primary objective is to select books that meet state requirements while enabling students to connect with the characters and feel represented,” spokesperson Isabel Mascareñas said.

Brengle suggested that the model is “following the Board of Education suggestion to err on the side of caution.”

Still, Ferrell said she believes the Pinellas list focuses too heavily on the diverse content district officials say they want to make available.

“They are assuming ahead of time what might be challenged in the future,” she said. “This is the soft self-censorship, the chilling effect.”

The district instituted its preview process last summer, before the state issued any guidance on how to handle the laws and any resulting challenges. After reviewing 94 titles that time, the committee removed five books from circulation, placed another five in a section for staff only, and reset the grade level access for several others.

The School Board readopted its formal book challenge process in January. On the same evening, chief academic officer Dan Evans announced the administrative removal of Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye” from courses and libraries without having received a formal challenge.

One parent at Palm Harbor University High had informally complained about the book, which includes an incestuous rape scene, leading to the decision. A media committee overrode the ban three months later.

Hoping to lampoon the state laws, two former Pinellas teachers also objected to seven books they said they didn’t want the district to remove. They argued that erring on the side of caution should mean keeping books available, not yanking them off the shelves.

That has been Ferrell’s stance with Florida Freedom to Read.

“Under normal circumstances, I don’t think these books ever would have been called into question. All things here came about because of the legislation that is discriminatory in practice,” she said. “We have to raise our voices and say, if these laws are not meant to be discriminatory, then don’t discriminate.”

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