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No books banned at Monday's Escambia School Board meeting

Grady McFarren shares his experience reading "New Kid" by Jerry Craft with his mother, Jennifer McFarren, who served on the district review committee of the book.
Screenshot by WUWF Public Media
Grady McFarren shares his experience reading "New Kid" by Jerry Craft with his mother, Jennifer McFarren, who served on the district review committee of the book.

No books were banned last night at the Escambia County School District special meeting, but the four books in question were restricted to specific grades.

The graphic novels “Drama” by Raina Telgemeier and “New Kid” by Jerry Craft will be available in middle school and high school libraries. “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison and “The Nowhere Girls” by Amy Reed will be available to 11th and 12th grade students only.

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The school board held a seven-hour special meeting Monday night where hundreds of people were in attendance; a large number of which wore red shirts in solidarity of supporting the challenged books.

School board Chairman Paul Fetsko started the meeting asking for a show of hands of who read the books in question. Only a smattering of hands shot up.

The board heard hours of public comments before they voted on books. Parents, citizens, and educators spoke in support of keeping the books on library shelves.

The books in question discuss themes of LGBTQ acceptance, diversity, and sexual trauma and incest. Those in favor of keeping the books available say they promote empathy for readers who don’t share the same life experiences.

RELATED: Four more challenged books could be removed from Escambia County schools

Rev. Rick Branch of the First United Methodist Church said a full on ban of the books would be a “death by a thousand paper cuts.” He also reminded the school board that last time they removed books, it was on “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.”

“It’s almost never a good sign for John Oliver to be interested in you,” he said. “(The books) are a chance students have for belonging. A chance they have for understanding. Stop taking away their identities. Their lifelines.”

During public comments, Allie Garrett said the explicit language used in “The Bluest Eye” and “The Nowhere Girls” was pornography.

“What I read made me want to vomit,” said Garrett, who shared she was a victim of sexual violence. “If you’re not going to stop it, you should be charged.”

When she read a few paragraphs with explicit language, she was asked to stop by Fetsko.

“If you cannot read that in here, then those books don’t belong in public schools,” she shouted.

Several parents used the state’s pornography statute as an argument for removing the books. But the state’s definition of obscene materials are ones that, taken as a whole, “appeals to the prurient interest,” meaning the material is meant to be arousing.

Michelle White, coordinator of Media Services for Escambia County Public Schools, reiterated that review committees on each book are to look at books through the lens of the state’s pornography statute, HB 1557, known as the “Don’t Say Gay bill,” and HB 7, which Gov. DeSantis calls the “Stop WOKE Act,” to make sure books are in compliance with state laws.

“New Kid,” a book about a young Black boy who experiences culture shock going to a private school was accused of “race baiting.” But Jennifer McFarren, a parent of two elementary school students, and one of the book review committee members said the book teaches empathy and compassion. Her son, Grady, shared the same sentiment.

“I think it’s important for you to hear from the kids because we’re the ones reading the book,” he said. “(The book) helped me get ready if I ever go to a new school. This book was a good reminder that we are equal and should treat people with kindness and respect. You never know what someone is going through. I don’t think you should ban this book.”

RELATED: Banned Books: Author Jerry Craft on telling stories all kids can identify with

District review committees have already completed reviews on 30 books out of more than 170 that have been challenged. Parents asked the school board to trust the committee and their decisions, which was to keep the books in age appropriate schools. The board went just a little bit further in restrictions.

“Why have these committees to just ignore their advice?” asked Charles Henderson, who works for the school district. His wife, Jenna, is a teacher. “Please respect them and not leave (the decision) up to a small group of people in our community.”

The books “The Bluest Eye” and “The Nowhere Girls” were recommended to be available in high schools, but the board voted to further restrict to only 11th and 12th grade.

While District 1 Board member Kevin Adams made a motion to remove “The Bluest Eye” from schools altogether, District 3 Board member David Williams said the book was part of International Baccalaureate curriculum.

“I’ve been an administrator for 17 years and never received complaints,” he said before recommending it be restricted to 11th and 12th graders.

The books “Drama” and “New Kid” were recommended to be available in elementary, middle, and high school libraries. The board voted to restrict to middle and high schools only.

For Grady McFarren, who is in elementary school, this would mean he’ll have to wait until middle school to check out “The New Kid” from the school library again.

Jennie joined WUWF in 2018 as digital content producer and reporter.