Advertisement

Pinellas denies Moms for Liberty book challenge. ‘The Lovely Bones’ stays.

A panel of administrators, teachers and parents says the novel can remain in middle and high school libraries.
 
Angela Dubach, right, president of Pinellas County's Moms for Liberty chapter, on Thursday addresses a Pinellas school district panel reviewing the novel “The Lovely Bones.” Dubach's challenge of the book sought to remove it from all schools in the district. It was the first such challenge under a new process approved by the district.
Angela Dubach, right, president of Pinellas County's Moms for Liberty chapter, on Thursday addresses a Pinellas school district panel reviewing the novel “The Lovely Bones.” Dubach's challenge of the book sought to remove it from all schools in the district. It was the first such challenge under a new process approved by the district. [ JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK | Times ]
Published Dec. 14, 2023|Updated Dec. 15, 2023

LARGO — Rejecting a complaint from a local Moms for Liberty leader, a Pinellas County school district committee unanimously agreed Thursday to keep the novel “The Lovely Bones” by Alice Sebold in middle and high schools.

Using the school district’s new review process, a committee of administrators, teachers and parents considered a complaint filed against the book by Angela Dubach, president of the county’s chapter of Moms for Liberty. The national group, which got its start in northeast Florida, has been challenging books throughout the state over what its members have deemed pornographic content.

Florida recently surpassed Texas as the state with the most school book bans, according to Pen America, a free-speech nonprofit. Pinellas has been the site of only a handful.

Committee member Tracy Ellis, who has a child at Largo High, stressed that parents have the ability to restrict their children’s access to library books.

“I don’t think we as a group are appropriate to take over parents’ rights,” Ellis said, noting that some parents might want their children to read the book.

An image of the cover of "The Lovely Bones," a novel by Alice Sebold. The book was challenged by the Pinellas County chapter of Moms for Liberty, which asked that it be removed from all schools. It tells the story of a girl in heaven seeking justice after she was raped and murdered.
An image of the cover of "The Lovely Bones," a novel by Alice Sebold. The book was challenged by the Pinellas County chapter of Moms for Liberty, which asked that it be removed from all schools. It tells the story of a girl in heaven seeking justice after she was raped and murdered. [ Hillsborough County Public Library Cooperative ]

Dubach filed her complaint in early August, contending “The Lovely Bones,” in which 14-year-old Susie narrates the story of how her family and friends cope after her brutal rape and murder, is not appropriate for any students. She called for its removal from the schools that had copies, listing Largo, Osceola and Palm Harbor middle schools, Gibbs and Lakewood high schools and Calvin Hunsinger special education center.

During the hearing at school district headquarters in Largo, she clarified that she thought it should be restricted to grades 10 and higher.

The book has not been in schools this year, pending the outcome of the review.

Dubach, who attended the committee meeting accompanied by school board candidate Stacy Geier, said books like this one “have zero educational value,” and suggested that 95% of parents would opt out of letting their children have access to it if they knew it was available.

“If I were to hand this book to a minor in a public building, in a public park, I would be arrested,” Dubach said, suggesting it violates state law regarding pornography. “So why is it OK in schools?”

Over the past year, four other Florida school districts — Clay, Martin, St. Johns and Volusia counties — banned “The Lovely Bones,” according to PEN America. The Pinellas district pulled Sebold’s memoir about being raped, “Lucky,” out of circulation earlier this year. The book no longer is in publication after the alleged assailant was exonerated.

School Board member Stephanie Meyer included “The Lovely Bones” on a list of 28 books she suggested during a summertime workshop should be taken off shelves because of their sexual content.

At that same meeting, Meyer suggested the board be responsible for making final decisions about books in school libraries. The majority disagreed, paving the path for the committee approach.

Under district policy, which the board revised several times over the past year, a superintendent-appointed committee has the role of determining which challenged books stay or go districtwide. The policy requires the committee to meet publicly and to take input from the person filing the complaint, district staff and members of the public.

About a dozen people from the community showed up Thursday, with two speaking. Parent Malissa Aaronson called “The Lovely Bones” a “celebrated novel” that helps young readers “find themselves and their humanity.”

She suggested those who seek to ban it “want one thing — for all of us to be as lost as they are.”

Parent Raegan Miller, who also helps lead Florida Freedom to Read Project, said Pinellas parents have the right to control their children’s access to library materials, which are not assigned but rather self-selected.

She argued that school media specialists are trained and qualified to curate the library collection, adding that not every book is right for every student but they should have the chance to select what they and their parents like.

Media specialists from several schools submitted reviews, read aloud by committee chairperson Jennifer Dull. Each supported retaining the novel at middle and high schools, saying it has literary merit, sparking students to think about universal themes such as family and the power of love.

District library media coordinator Bronwyn Slack recommended the book be retained for self-selection in all school libraries.

Superintendent Kevin Hendrick has said he put together the new procedure to avoid having to conduct multiple school-level hearings for the same title.

The committee process runs alongside a separate procedure that allows the superintendent or his designees to remove books they determine violate state law, regardless of whether anyone files a formal challenge. Moms for Liberty has coordinated a statewide push of that angle, with supporters in Pinellas and elsewhere reading explicit passages aloud during board meetings to highlight books they don’t want in schools.

This happened most recently in Brevard County, where 13 books were taken out of schools this week after the school board stopped the public recitations, according to Florida Today.

As schools have removed classics such as “Romeo and Juliet” in an attempt to comply with a law many see as vague, calls have emerged for a more balanced and thoughtful approach to books.

Groups opposed to taking books out of schools have argued that it should be up to individual parents to say which titles are appropriate for their children. They note that most districts including Pinellas now give parents an avenue to tell schools which books, if any, their children are not allowed to take from the library, further alleviating the need to censor materials broadly.

Dubach said she has no plans to file any additional book challenges. She said she would talk to lawmakers about the need to more clearly define what is permissible when it comes to sexual content in books.

• • •

Spotlight on education

The public is invited to a community conversation about the future of Florida public schools on Tuesday, Jan. 30, at the Tampa Theatre, hosted by the Tampa Bay Times. In the second installment of the Spotlight Tampa Bay series, Times journalists will moderate a discussion by experts, followed by a panel featuring students. Tickets are $20; $10 for students. Proceeds benefit the Times’ Journalism Fund. To purchase tickets, click here.