Pinellas schools ban 5 books after hearing passages read aloud at meetings

The district restricted another 11 titles to high school juniors and seniors who have parent permission.
Pinellas County resident Katie Harvey reads a passage from "Water for Elephants" to the school board during a meeting on Aug. 1. The district later restricted the book to juniors and seniors with parental permission.
Pinellas County resident Katie Harvey reads a passage from "Water for Elephants" to the school board during a meeting on Aug. 1. The district later restricted the book to juniors and seniors with parental permission. [ YouTube ]
Published Sept. 19|Updated Sept. 22

The Pinellas County school district has pulled five books from its shelves amid concerns that their content, which includes graphic sex and violence, is inappropriate for minors.

It did so without having received any formal complaints about the titles.

The administration also instructed schools to reclassify another 11 books as available for high school juniors and seniors only, providing they get written parental permission to use them. Twelve books were labeled for high school grades, taking them out of middle schools, and another two remain under review.

The Pinellas County school district reviewed 30 books for possible removal in early September 2023.
The Pinellas County school district reviewed 30 books for possible removal in early September 2023. [ Pinellas County Schools ]

School board member Stephanie Meyer introduced 25 of the 30 titles, which were reviewed by a committee of 10 district media specialists, during a July workshop. At that meeting, the board gave the superintendent authority to review books as they come to his attention. Meyer did not respond to requests for comment.

Several residents attending an August board meeting read aloud explicit passages from several of them, urging the district to remove them in accordance with state law that says schools may not have books that contain pornography or material deemed harmful to minors.

“Based on the recommendation from the Library Media Review Team, both classroom and media center libraries across the district will be assessed to ensure collections align with these recommendations,” district spokesperson Isabel Mascareñas said.

The district’s action mirrors a trend taking place across Florida. Rather than file formal complaints and go through a public hearing, parents and other residents have started to recite out-of-context excerpts at board meetings and demand action.

Such activity recently prompted the Indian River County School Board to review more than 100 books for possible removal, TC Palm reported. The Leon County school district removed five books in July after hearing about them from the Moms for Liberty local chapter, WFSU reported.

Many of the districts are looking at the same group of books, which include several novels by author Ellen Hopkins, one of the most frequently challenged authors in the state. Hopkins’ “Traffick” was recommended for removal from Pinellas schools, along with four other titles: “Lucky” by Alice Sebold, “Rant: An Oral Biography of Buster Casey” by Chuck Palahniuk, “Damsel” by Elana K. Arnold and “When Good Kids Kill” by Michael D. Kelleher.

“Traffick” tells the story of five teens victimized by sex trafficking. “Lucky” is a memoir about the author’s rape, which is no longer in publication after the accused was exonerated. “Rant” tells the story of a teen serial killer. “Damsel” is a tale of a damsel rescued from a dragon by a prince. “When Good Kids Kill” offers a nonfiction look at the stories and motivations of teen killers.

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Laura Hine, vice chairperson of the Pinellas board, said it makes sense for the district to take a closer look at materials that are brought forward, regardless of the official paper trail.

“You can’t pretend like you didn’t hear it,” Hine said. “There are times when executive action has to be taken.”

Board member Eileen Long said she supports leaving as many books as possible in the schools. At the same time, she said, some content is not appropriate and requires additional review within full literary context.

Long, who has faced online criticism for her stance on books, also noted that the district this year offered parents more options on controlling what their children can take from school and classroom libraries. District officials said the vast majority submitted forms granting full access.

The board discussed additional proposed changes to its controversial materials policy during a workshop Tuesday. It marked the third time this year the board has considered its rule, as a result of new requirements from the Florida Department of Education.

The department recently held a rule-making session to further refine how districts collect information about book challenges. The department withdrew a separate rule proposal that had been intended to clarify which materials must be removed within five days as a result of an objection, saying it no longer is needed.

Angela Dubach, president of the Moms for Liberty group Pinellas chapter, has been among the residents clamoring for books to be classified more appropriately, and removed if necessary. She recently read to the board a sexually explicit passage from “Push” by Sapphire, which is one of two novels that remain under review by the district.

The other is “Call Me By Your Name” by André Aciman.

Dubach praised the district for moving on the books.

“That’s good they’re doing what they should,” she said. “If I were to hand material to a child that has explicit sexual material ... I could be arrested for that. So why is it different inside a school?”

Raegan Miller, who sits on the Pinellas PTA executive board, said she understood why the district is looking more closely at books.

“I wish the theatrics at a school board meeting didn’t lead to books getting removed,” said Miller, also a board member of the anti-censorship group Florida Freedom to Read Project. “Go through the process.”

The Pinellas district has removed books without going through the challenge process before.

It told high schools to take “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison out of circulation in January, later returning it to libraries and courses. It also ordered schools to get rid of “Gender Queer” by Maia Kobabe in late 2021.

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