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Some Escambia high school libraries are closed as district works to review titles

Bookshelves covered at Pensacola High School library.
Courtesy photo

Photos of covered shelves in Escambia County School libraries are raising concerns among parents and citizens.

The Escambia County School District says that it’s just how some schools are handling the “Herculean” task to be compliant with HB 1069, an expansion of the Parental Rights in Education law, otherwise known as “Don’t Say Gay.”

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Georgia Clarkson Smith had heard from a school district employee that some school libraries were closed or that shelves were covered even as schools opened on Aug. 10. This was confirmed when her son sent her photos of the Pensacola High School library where shelves are covered.

“I think it’s appalling,” she said. “Students are supposed to be going to school to be educated. I think the psychology of the covered shelves is damaging — it’s aesthetically astounding.”

Photos of covered bookshelves at Escambia High School have also been circulating on Facebook. Smith also expressed concern that, as a parent, she wasn’t given a head’s up of the library’s closure. She posted the photos her son took on Facebook Thursday which have been shared by hundreds.

Smith said she would’ve preferred for parents to opt in or out of allowing their kids to have access to books. She said it’s “incredibly ironic” that Republican lawmakers and organizations such as Moms for Liberty are touting book removals as “parental choice” since she wasn’t given one.

A sign in a classroom library alerts that books are unavailable under HB 1069.
Courtesy photo
A sign in a classroom library alerts that books are unavailable under HB 1069.

“They’ve just kept parents from engaging in the issue,” she said.

Amanda Young, another parent of a Pensacola High School student, said she was “disheartened” by the library photos.

“Books are a way for kids to escape that doesn’t involve a phone,” she said. “(Access) is very vital.”

Like Smith, Young is concerned about the Florida laws and what the effects of restricted books will have on kids. Books such as “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” by Stephen Chbosky, which was removed from Escambia County schools last fall for its depiction of sexuality and discussion of suicide, can actually help students and parents, said Young.

“When my daughter read that book all it did was open the doors to a healthy conversation,” she explained. “Kids want to have more freedom. I’d rather it be at parental discretion than having access to zero books.”

Cody Strother, a spokesperson for Escambia County Public Schools, said the district is aware of the photos and emphasized that context is important.

“While it may have a stark appearance, there is good reason to cover those titles,” Strother said in an e-mail. “In terms of protecting students from potentially objectionable or illegal content and in terms of protecting professionally those media center specialists from someone removing one of those titles, it makes sense to physically deny access to those titles not yet reviewed.”

“All of our media specialists are working hard to review their collections in order to be compliant with HB 1069, a legal, state-mandated requirement,” he added.

HB 1069 prohibits the discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity from kindergarten through 12th grade and aims to prohibit materials that are deemed “sexual content.” The law also makes the process of objecting to books and instructional materials easier by requiring forms to be accessible on school websites and “easy to read and understand.”

Part of the law also prohibits teachers from asking students about their preferred pronouns or sharing their own preferred pronouns.

Since the original Parental Rights in Education law, among a handful of other education laws, the Escambia school district, as well as the rest of Florida school districts, have had to grapple with how to review instructional and library materials. ECSD has held several special meetings— some that lasted hours — to address materials that were brought up for review.

Strother also mentioned that it is normal for media centers at the high school level to have “few, if any” materials at the start of the school year and that a review process may take longer. Young mentioned that her fourth grader at Global Learning Academy did have full access to library materials.

“This was not unexpected, so we would ask for students, parents, and members of the public to remain patient with our hard-working media center personnel, as they meticulously undertake this Herculean task, one that is mandated by state statute,” Strother said.

In May, PEN America, Penguin Random House, and a number of authors and parents filed a federal lawsuit against Escambia County School District challenging the removal and restrictions of books. The lawsuit states the removals violate student’s rights to free speech. In July, five more parents joined the lawsuit.

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