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Four more challenged books could be removed from Escambia County schools

Banned Books
Ted Shaffrey
Banned books are visible at the Central Library, a branch of the Brooklyn Public Library system, in New York City on Thursday, July 7, 2022. The books are banned in several public schools and libraries in the U.S., but young people can read digital versions from anywhere through the library. The Brooklyn Public Library offers free membership to anyone in the U.S. aged 13 to 21 who wants to check out and read books digitally in response to the nationwide wave of book censorship and restrictions.

Next week, the Escambia County School Board will once again meet to discuss removing four books from schools.

Last month, a similar meeting lasted four hours with dozens of citizens voicing their comments about three books — “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” “When Aiden Became a Brother,” and “And Tango Makes Three.” All three books were removed from public schools and the decision — especially in the case of “And Tango Makes Three” — gained national attention from talk shows such as “The View” and “John Oliver.”

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This time, the books in question include “Drama” by Raina Telgemeier, “New Kid” by Jerry Craft, “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison, and “The Nowhere Girls” by Amy Reed. All books are available as self-selected library books.

The special meeting will take place at 5:30 p.m. Monday, March 20.

Michelle White, coordinator of Media Services for Escambia County Public Schools says she expects another packed house.

“These are big decisions, whether you continue to make it available, that's a big decision. If you decide to remove it — those are both big decisions that have implications across the whole school community,” she said.

Having a big audience for the review of library materials is, however, a new thing for Escambia County and school districts across Florida who are having similar discussions after the passage of bills such as HB 7, otherwise known as “The Stop WOKE Act,” and HB 1557 — the Florida Parental Rights in Education Act, or “Don’t Say Gay” bill.

Prior to those being being passed, White said she had not seen such public interest in library materials.

“Libraries had your volunteers that would come in and do book fair events,” said White. “They would help with shelving and those types of things, but not in the daily operations and title availability in our libraries. This is new.”

What are the books?

The books being called for reconsideration include the graphic novel “Drama” by Raina Telgemeier, a book about a middle school student who works on her school’s drama production crew. The book had already been voted on by the district’s review committee to remain available in schools. Complaints about the book center on the depiction of an LGBTQ character in the book — specifically one panel when two cartoon boys kiss.

“The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison has been on banned book lists since it was published in 1970. Although the review committee voted to let the book remain in high school libraries, an appeal suggests that the novel is pornographic because of the detailed description of sex and sexual violence and therefore is a crime to have available to minors according to state statutes.

“The Nowhere Girls” by Amy Reed is a story about a group of misfits who come together to avenge the rape of a fellow classmate. The book was voted by the review committee to remain available in high school libraries. Like “The Bluest Eye,” challenges of the book take issue with the graphic language used.

“The ambition and idea that the author is portraying is important (standing up, girl power, etc.); however, it is the way in which she conveys this theme that is neither content nor age-appropriate,” the complainant said according to documents.

“New Kid” by Jerry Craft is a graphic novel about a 12-year-old African American boy who experiences culture shock when he goes to a private school. The district’s review committee voted to keep the book available in elementary, middle, and high school libraires. Complaints about the book says it’s in violation of HB 7, which prohibits classroom instruction of critical race theory, or CRT.

Escambia County Public Schools
A panel from the book "Drama" that was called into question according to challenge documents.

What does the district review process look like?

The District Review Committee has been working through a list of more than 170 challenged books that represent titles in elementary, middle, and high schools. As of March 10, they have completed 30 book reviews and are on track to have the majority of the book reviews done in August.

Each book takes about a month from start to finish. And that’s time well spent, said White.

"It is a very important decision to make to remove a book, because then that choice has been made for all students, all teachers, all schools, all administrators, that that book is no longer a choice,” she added. “So, it should take time, it should take that much in-depth analysis of the book before making that decision.

The book committees have five to nine members depending on if the book is in elementary, middle, or high school, or some combination of the three levels. Each member is given a copy of the book and a review packet that includes the complaint about the book.

“Then it has, what the statutes are, like House Bill 7, House Bill 1557, the pornography statute. What is our collection development policy? What is our challenge policy? The school Library Advisory councils can provide input on a title. The community at-large can provide input on a title,” explained White. “Sometimes that packet is 30, 80 pages, depending on the book.”

When reviewing the books, the committee is expected to look at the book as a whole, said White. The committee comes back after three to four weeks to talk about the book and answer specific questions about controversial elements, what grade levels are suitable for the books, or whether the book has “literary, artistic, political, or scientific value for the suggested audience.”

The committee votes to keep or remove a book by blind vote. A final document with the votes is sent by certified mail to the complainant.

“When it's received, they have ten days to appeal to the board,” said White. “And then if they do not appeal to the board, the committee's decision stands for one year before someone else can challenge it again. That way, next week, somebody doesn't challenge the same book.”

If it is appealed to the board — like these current books — then it goes to the next regularly scheduled board meeting. The board’s decision stands for five years before the book can be reconsidered again.

While board members are not required to read the book, they are given a copy as well as review materials from the committee.

“They do have that ultimate authority to decide differently than us,” White said of the board. “But it is my goal that we continue to give each book its due process. The hope is that the committee has the time dedicated to the one book where they do read it cover to cover and do the full review. And what the board gets is the summary of that document.”

It is a very important decision to make to remove a book, because then that choice has been made for all students, all teachers, all schools, all administrators, that that book is no longer a choice. So, it should take time, it should take that much in-depth analysis of the book before making that decision.
Michelle White, Escambia County Public Schools Coordinator of Media Services

Who is on the committees?

White said she’s fielded a lot of questions about who serves on the committees that review the books. For every reviewed book, there is one committee. Some members may overlap.

“The committees, by policy, include an administrator, a teacher, a parent, a community member, and a media specialist,” said White.

When she started to enlist committees, White asked administrators to recommend teachers, parents, and community members. She also reached out to Friends of the Public Library and volunteer organizations to build committees.

“I want a variety of committees because if you have just the same committee deciding for every book, that becomes no different than one person deciding,” she said. “And we want to try to be as representational as possible.”

Only teachers and media specialists are paid for their time since they are seen as “experts,” said White. The rest are volunteering their time.

“Typically, at the end of a meeting they want to do more,” White added.

Those who have filed challenges on a book cannot join the committee to review the same book.

“If they had an interest to be on committee, they could be on a committee for a book they haven't challenged,” explained White. “If you present the challenge, your perspective is there.”

And anyone who is interested in joining a committee can contact White at mwhite5@ecsdfl.us.

Are these books banned?

During a press conference last week, Gov. Ron DeSantis called the outcry over banned books a hoax.

“Exposing the ‘book ban’ hoax is important because it reveals that some are attempting to use our schools for indoctrination,” said the governor.

School districts are required to report the number of books removed based on laws passed in 2022. According to the governor’s office, of the 23 reporting districts, the largest number of books removed from a single district is 19. The governor’s office called reports of empty library shelves a myth.

According to the American Library Association, any removal of materials is considered a ban. White uses that same definition.

“One book, ‘Ground Zero,’ the committee decided was better suited to middle and high schools and not elementary schools. So, it is banned, in a sense, from elementary, but not from middle and high,” said White.

“And Tango Makes Three” was another example White used. The children’s book is based on a true story of two male penguins who raise a chick together.

“It is banned from the school district now. Is it banned from the public library? No. Is it banned from Amazon? No. Barnes and Noble? No. But can a student go to a classroom library or to their school library and get the book? No, we're not allowed to have it in our schools,” White explained.

Books banned from school libraries and classrooms can still be brought from home.

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