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Walton County schools pulls books flagged by statewide nonprofit

Drama.jpg
Florida Citizens Alliance
In this panel from Raina Telgemeier's graphic novel "Drama," a young teen tells his friend he's bisexual. This was one of the examples FCA gave to flag the book as inappropriate in schools.

Dozens of books have been pulled from library shelves in Walton County schools, many of them with LGBTQ themes, after the group Florida Citizens Alliance released a list of books they deem “objectionable materials.”

A total of 24 books were “proactively” pulled to review, said Deputy Superintendent Jennifer Hawthorne.

“The Walton County School District is reviewing and re-evaluating books based on age appropriateness and content, especially in relation to Florida’s recent legislative session,” she said in an email.

In the past legislative session, Gov. Ron DeSantis has signed laws that prohibit classroom discussion about LGBTQ issues, critical race theory or the New York Times’ 1619 project. Keith Flaugh, CEO of Florida Citizens Alliance, says the nonprofit is helping schools comply with Florida laws.

Books such as “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison, the graphic novel “Drama” by Raina Telgemeier, “The Hate U Give” by Angie Thomas, and “Forever” by Judy Blume are some of books removed in Walton County based on the Alliance list.

FCA cites all of the passages they find questionable in selected books. For example, the book “Drama,” which is written for middle-school-age readers, was flagged for instances where two boys sing and hold hands and a young boy tells his friend he’s bisexual. Some of the books on the FCA list are about changing bodies and include cartoon images of nude bodies.

Flaugh refers to Florida statute 847.012 as one of the major arguments for the group’s crusade. The statute says an adult may not knowingly distribute materials to a minor on school property that depict “a person or portion of the human body which depicts nudity or sexual conduct, sexual excitement, sexual battery, bestiality, or sadomasochistic abuse and which is harmful to minors.”

Other books on FCA’s list include “Two Dads” by Carolyn Robinson, “Everywhere Babies,” by Susan Meyers, and “Being Jazz, My life as a transgender teen” by Jazz Jennings. Flaugh said the list is not exhaustive and has grown in the past few years.

“We’re just playing whack-a-mole,” Flaugh said. He suggests schools could invest in technology to scan books for specific words to prevent them from being purchased.

It’s a “parent’s choice” whether to read books with their children at home, said Flaugh, who is not a parent nor grandparent. He’s also not concerned about public libraries. His focus is on schools.

“Schools should not be promoting these books,” he said. “We’re trying to protect the innocence of young kids.”

FCA was founded nearly four years ago, based on complaints from parents and grandparents around LGBTQ content in books found in school libraries around the state.

A portion of the list was based on popular young adult romance novels on Goodreads.

Last May, FCA retained Pacific Justice Institute as their legal firm for $1. The group conducted a public records request to school districts in all 67 Florida counties to see how many of the objectionable books were found. Some schools did not comply, Flaugh said.

According to the FCA report, Okaloosa has 48% of the books in their libraries, Walton has 40%, Santa Rosa has 38% and Escambia has 0%. Cody Strother, marketing and public relations coordinator for Escambia County School District, said he was not aware of any public records request from FCA.

Representatives from the school districts in Okaloosa and Santa Rosa counties did not respond to interview requests at the time this article was published.

Hawthorne said FCA did not contact Walton County School District, but that the list was brought to the district’s attention from a different group, though she did not specify which one.

At a School Board meeting on April 19, a member of Walton County’s Moms for Liberty chapter, spoke during public comment to say the group was approached by FCA during the legislative session which then shared the list of 58 books.

“They told us that about 45% of the 58 books were in the school library,” she said. “I contacted Ms. Apple (Crystal Apple, supervisor of the curriculum and instruction department) and she responded within 20 minutes. The books on that list are not diverse, they are pornographic … and they are not in our libraries.”

School districts differ in how challenged materials are brought to review. According to the Walton County policy online, the procedure for challenged materials should be presented in writing on a form available at each school office or the superintendent’s office. In the procedures, it says the materials should not be removed immediately, but still be available pending a final decision.

As of last week, the books are still in review and no additional books are in question. Hawthrone emphasized that the books are not banned.

Ana Tomblin

But some parents are more so concerned with the removal of the books, not the books themselves.

“Books were removed from shelves without being evaluated,” said Ana Tomblin, a parent at April 19 School Board meeting. “Libraries are safe spaces that represent equal access to information. When books are removed or not included based on personal opinion, it affects all students. Students deserve to see themselves represented."

Santa Rosa Beach attorney Daniel Uhlfelder is known for his criticism of the DeSantis administration and is running for state attorney general. He’s also a parent of two Walton County School District students. He calls the book issue “disturbing.”

“As a parent, I don’t want some outside groups with no affiliation to this community dictating what books are in our schools,” he said. “I think it’s pretty scary.”