Advertisement

Hillsborough school board looks to clear up confusion over book selection

After a long-delayed workshop, questions remain at the state level.
 
The Hillsborough County school district is still sorting through how to select books without running afoul of new state laws.
The Hillsborough County school district is still sorting through how to select books without running afoul of new state laws. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Aug. 15, 2023|Updated Aug. 16, 2023

Hillsborough County School Board members, in their long-awaited workshop Tuesday about library books, generally agreed that they trust and respect their trained media specialists.

But, while a formal process exists to choose and vet library books, board member Stacy Hahn said, “things do fall through the cracks.”

The best-known example: “This Book Is Gay,” a nonfiction book about LGBTQ+ topics that is recommended for high school years but was in the library collection at Pierce Middle School. Two parents filed a challenge, which worked its way through a series of appeals until the school board removed it in March.

With new laws in effect, and guidelines expected at an upcoming meeting of the State Board of Education, Hillsborough leaders want to avoid having to defend a citizens’ lawsuit, as has happened in some other counties.

Hillsborough County school district leaders answer questions about school library books on Aug. 15. From left are Chief Academic Officer Colleen Faucett, Assistant Superintendent Debbie Pepe, Media Services K-5 Supervisor John Milburn and Media Services 6-12 Supervisor Kimberly DeFusco.
Hillsborough County school district leaders answer questions about school library books on Aug. 15. From left are Chief Academic Officer Colleen Faucett, Assistant Superintendent Debbie Pepe, Media Services K-5 Supervisor John Milburn and Media Services 6-12 Supervisor Kimberly DeFusco. [ MARLENE SOKOL | Times ]

They also want to avoid the embarrassment of removing a book without following their own established process, as happened earlier this year after a parent questioned Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye” in Pinellas County. That book was ultimately returned to the schools.

There was consensus at Tuesday’s board workshop that people are confused about how the state defines terms such as “sexually explicit” in literature and what the consequences are if a teacher allows a book into the classroom that was not properly cleared.

There were also sharp words directed at board member Lynn Gray.

Gray, who has served on community panels to combat human trafficking, described that issue as her “area of expertise.” As an educator and grandmother, she added, she has concerns about a graphic novel adaptation of “The Kite Runner” by Khaled Hosseini and a Disney-inspired porn version of the children’s movie “Little Mermaid,” although she acknowledged later that the porn is not in schools.

Such products “are porn,” Gray said. “They desensitize our youth. They normalize sexual behavior.” Children are “aroused” by these images, to their detriment, she said.

Challenges to “The Kite Runner” are controversial around the nation, as the novel received wide literary acclaim but contains descriptions of rape, violence and substance use.

“I don’t know if you’ve read ‘The Kite Runner,’ but I have,” board member Jessica Vaughn said. “And if anyone is aroused by that, that’s extremely problematic. It is not sexual by nature, by any way, shape or form. If something like that is what’s grooming our children and not predators who intentionally earn the trust of our students either through familial relationships or online ... we need to reevaluate ourselves as a society.”

Board member Karen Perez picked up on Gray’s description of her work to combat human trafficking. “I think when you used the word ‘professional,’ as opposed to sitting on a board as a voice, that’s also misleading,” she said.

Throughout the workshop discussion, board members frequently used the word “pornography” and cautioned against its use when referring to all sexual topics.

Hahn and board member Patti Rendon called for more clarity as the district refines its process. Suggestions included paper book challenge forms for parents who do not have computers, available at multiple locations and translated into numerous languages.

Most members said they look forward to getting more guidance from the state at a planned Board of Education meeting on Aug. 23. Hahn, along with others on the board, had requested Tuesday’s discussion for more than a year.

“Nobody wants pornography in schools,” chairperson Nadia Combs said. “Nobody wants their children reading pornography.” But she said conversations like the one about the “The Kite Runner” weaken the district.

“Our literacy rates are so low,” Combs said. “Our early literacy rates are some of the lowest in the entire country. Our focus is to educate you. Nobody wants to brainwash your children.”

• • •

Sign up for the Gradebook newsletter!

Every Thursday, get the latest updates on what’s happening in Tampa Bay area schools from Times education reporter Jeffrey S. Solochek. Click here to sign up.