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Guest Column
Be aware of the unseen cost of censorship in Florida’s schools | Column
Why is it that the removal of a book — one that’s been an important work of literature for decades — can happen in an instant, but the preservation of a book takes an entire community spending seemingly endless hours in grueling advocacy?
 
A senior in the IB program at Palm Harbor University High School clutches the Toni Morrison novel "The Bluest Eye" before the beginning of the Pinellas County School Board meeting in February in Largo.
A senior in the IB program at Palm Harbor University High School clutches the Toni Morrison novel "The Bluest Eye" before the beginning of the Pinellas County School Board meeting in February in Largo. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Oct. 12, 2023

How did our children’s schools become hotbeds for censorship? When did it become okay for parents to be sidelined in managing their child’s education? As a parent and former teacher, I felt an obligation to get involved and learn the answer to these questions.

Stephanie Cox, a St. Petersburg parent, traveled to Tallahassee several times in 2016 and 2017 to fight for recess in Florida's public schools.
Stephanie Cox, a St. Petersburg parent, traveled to Tallahassee several times in 2016 and 2017 to fight for recess in Florida's public schools. [ Courtesy of Stephanie Cox ]

The truth is as simple as it is infuriating — since the Florida Department of Education directed school districts to “err on the side of caution” in making library books available, a handful of activists have used this ruling to argue against any book they find “inappropriate.” In fact, only two people have been responsible for filing half of the challenges to books in school libraries across the state. Just a few dozen people have brought Florida’s libraries to their knees.

In only two years, thousands of books have been removed from Florida’s schools, many which have been made available to students for years without issue. I’ve spent the better part of the last two decades working in Florida’s education system, including elementary, high school, and college, so I can say this with certainty — these book removals are an unprecedented attack on student and parental rights in the classroom. These restrictions are dangerous, and we all must recognize them as such.

As a high school English teacher, it was my goal to nurture students’ curiosity through reading. By exploring literature of authors from different backgrounds and various time periods, students learned to write and think critically in a safe, measured environment. I found that it was through these varied readings that students would often fall in love with a particular genre or author. Nothing was more fulfilling as a teacher than seeing a student’s passion for reading blossom while in class.

Unfortunately, I fear that this age-old experience is coming to an end in Florida. A tiny handful of activists have stripped from our schools a host of beloved literature, ranging from the modern to the classic, depriving our students of invaluable learning experiences. It is shameful that student learning is now at the mercy of the extreme political opinions of a few. Without a hint of shame or embarrassment, these extremists are putting their own opinions above the learned judgment of professional, trained and dedicated teachers, librarians and school staff.

Yes, some content may touch on more mature themes — who didn’t have to read Shakespeare in school? But I can’t think of a better environment for youth to read about difficult subjects like death, mental illness and America’s history than within the safe confines of our schools. It is unthinkable that, at a time when more youth than ever are dropping books in favor of scrolling through social media, school districts are making it even harder for our youth to connect with the world through literature.

I first became involved in this subject when “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison was pulled from our high school’s library and AP English courses last year. For months, parents, students and educators attended school board meetings and wrote emails to ensure the book remained a part of the curriculum. It was only after several months of outcry that the book was returned. Why is it that the removal of a book — one that’s been an important work of literature for decades — can happen in an instant, but the preservation of a book takes an entire community spending seemingly endless hours in grueling advocacy?

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If a parent takes issue with the literature their child is reading in school, then they have a right to address and manage it. But one parent has no right to restrict the reading rights of every student in school. This year, my county asked parents to complete a form granting access to books in the school library. According to a district report, only 0.2% of students were not granted full access to school libraries. Clearly, a majority of parents want their children to enjoy the full scope of what schools have to offer.

We, the parents and educators, need to reclaim the narrative. School districts must listen to us, not political activists, and allow our students to enjoy the holistic reading experiences they deserve. Removing books isn’t protecting students — it’s holding them back. Literature provides students with a nuanced understanding by conveying the human condition within history. It prepares students for the real world, and tells truths about life that no textbook could ever express. To steal these experiences from students is to rob them of their chance to build empathy, critical thinking and a well-rounded view of the world.

It’s time we remember the purpose of education — to enlighten, not obscure; to foster growth, not stagnation. Together, let’s champion the right to a comprehensive, unrestricted education for Florida’s children, and ensure that no voice, however loud, can take that right away.

Stephanie Cox lives in St. Petersburg, is a former teacher and has two school-age children.