The Flagler County School Board is not banning books–yet. But two board members–Jill Woolbright and Janet McDonald–are on the warpath, playing up isolated complaints about materials they find objectional on ideological grounds and mirroring similar attempts in other districts where a few voices have capitalized on largely manufactured controversies. The board members’ moves parallel a national extremist organization’s inquiry in Flagler and other Florida counties about the district’s book holdings, especially targeting racially-conscious and LGBTQ-themed books.
The moves point to what may be a new front in the already charged political atmosphere as cultural issues under the guise of “parental rights” and educational materials become fodder for debates about how much a school district may or must control what students read, and according to what criteria.
A single complaint by a one parent about a fifth-grade English workbook that referred to Black Lives Matter in a few paragraphs, and that wasn’t part of any assigned work, led Woolbright and McDonald at a workshop this week to raise questions about how such a passage was allowed to be part of instructional materials and whether there is a “vetting” process to prevent students from having to see such “point of view” excerpts. (See the full passage at the foot of the article.)
The parent, Kristy Furnari, who is part of an advisory group that works with the district on Exceptional Student Education, also wrote Sheriff Rick Staly about the same passage, claiming, inaccurately, that it bore “an insidious anti-police message camouflaged in a seemingly innocuous story about protesting for BLM,” and that she was seeking to have the material removed. Her email to school board members similarly mischaracterized or made false claims about other passages in the booklet that dealt with the nation’s capital, the Constitution, voting rights and “centralized” government.
Furnari’s objection to that particular booklet mirrors similar objections in the Sarasota and Martin County school districts, which also either pulled the booklet or replaced the Black Lives Matter passage three weeks ago. The similarities suggest either coordinated or copycat efforts are under way to assail school curricula based on content–specifically content that gives voice to minorities and Blacks in particular. Studies have long documented the dearth of minority representation in American textbooks, a dearth some publishing houses are attempting to address.
Similarly, a group called the Pacific Justice Institute, saying it represents the Florida Citizens Alliance–the group that pressured Gov. Ron DeSantis to “remove” critical race theory from schools–provided a list of 58 book titles to the Flagler County school district and demanded to know whether any of the titles were in any of the district’s nine public school libraries, whether any titles are used in any classroom as part of any curriculum, the number of copies available to students, and at which schools. The books’ themes are all either focused on LGBTQ issues or race issues, including Toni Morrison’s Beloved and Being Jazz: My Life as a (Transgender) Teen by Jazz Jennings, with the odd title by Jodi Picoult, the hugely popular writer among teens whose themes, including school shootings, make some parents nervous. (See the Institutes public record request and the full list of books it inquired about.)
The Southern Poverty Law Center calls the Pacific Justice Institute an anti-LGBT hate group and an extremist group founded in 1997 by Brad Dacus. “PJI and Dacus have compared legalized gay marriage to Hitler and the Nazis’ ascent in Germany; endorsed so-called “reparative” or sexual orientation conversion therapy,” writes SPLC in its summary profile of the organization, “claimed marriage equality would lead to legal polygamy and incest; fought against protections for trans children and fabricated a story of harassment by a trans student; and said that LGBT History Month promotes gay pornography to children.”
The same public record request went to several other school districts in Florida, again reflecting an orchestrated approach that then leads to more targeted actions locally. Flagler schools complied with the request. The district was also subsequently faced with a few in-0person requests by individuals seeking to inspect the library shelves at Flagler Palm Coast High School’s media center. They were turned away due to Covid protocols in place (and because members of the community cannot willy-nilly wander a school’s library during school hours, or without a district escort.)
Woolbright at the workshop Tuesday, when she raised the Furnari objections, also sought to have a filtering process for books and materials in school media centers.
“Where did the books come from? who approves the list? Are there approved lists by grade level? Are they by elementary, middle and high or do they cross over? Is there a rubric of accountability for the purchases?” Woolbright asked, wanting a “handbook” that would lay it all out. She also asked whether a book was ever banned, and referred to “people” who were not given access to a media center.
“I think it would be really good that we do have that being presented to us and us approve a procedure handbook for Media Center specialists, just to protect our people,” Woolbright said. She and McDonald wanted to workshop the matter in the near future.
“I’ll tell you, maybe I look at this a little differently,” Board Chairman Trevor Tucker said. “Any printed material the student reads–I actually want every type of printed material possible. I’d like students to read everything and anything, whether I agree with it or not. The more someone reads, the more ideas you find, whether you agree with them or not. I just personally think that I do not like going down a road where I’m thinking about a library or media specialist or anybody saying, this is the list of books we can have, this is the list of books we can’t have. I hate that idea, personally. But if we would like to have a workshop on it, I’m okay with it.”
Board member Colleen Conklin called it a “slippery slope” and Cheryl Massaro called it “censorship,” but Tucker agreed to the workshop only for discussion’s sake, if not to contradict his statement about ideas.
The issue of the Black Lives Matter passage in the fifth-grade booklet, and other passages Furnari found objectionable, was also brought up by Woolbright, who appeared to rephrase almost word for word Furnari’s email, with the same inaccuracies or mischaracterizations.
The booklet is published by Benchmark Education, a New Rochelle, N.Y.-based publishing company focused on K-6 English and Spanish language instruction.
“This was a state adopted list, and it’s difficult to get on that list to be approved,” LaShakia Moore, the district’s director of teaching and learning, said in an interview.
The state provides a long list of adopted materials to districts, which then select from that list. That particular booklet was approved for fifth grade across the district. It’s been used for just this year. There had been no issues in school. It was brought by “one parent that brought it to my attention,” Moore said, referring to the Furnari email. None other, though Woolbright claimed there’d been others, including social media, but she didn’t specify. (Often a post on social media that may get comments or likes then translates as “many people” in the parlance of public officials who have no other evidence.)
Any parent who would want her child not to be exposed to any resource has that right. The child will not have to read or work from that resource, Moore said. But she noted that the Black Lives Matter passage at the heart of the controversy had not even been assigned.
The booklet, “The U.S. Constitution: Then and Now” is intended to improve reading and comprehension skills. It uses the Constitution and its history as a framework, to make the material more relevant to students. Its verbiage is standard, unremarkable and, at least in consensus scholarship, uncontested history, unless refracted through an ideological lens that may say more about the reader than the content.
Furnari claimed “The first page is advocating for DC to become a state, which happens to be what Democrats were advocating for just this year.” The statement is false: there is no such advocacy. The booklet notes that D.C. residents pay taxes but have no representation in Congress, which is accurate, and that they have been motivated to make the district a state–an effort that goes back at least to the late 19th century.
Furnari claims a certain paragraph “advocates for a strong centralized federal government. Also the preference of the Democratic Party.” The statement is an anachronistically gross misreading of the booklet’s text and reflects an outright misunderstanding of the period, which refers to the aims of the founders to replace the impotent Continental Congress with a stronger federal government, hence the Constitution outlining that government’s power. There were no Democrats at the time. Those who favored the centralized government were Federalists, like Alexander Hamilton, John Adams and John Marshall, whose 34 years as Chief Justice defined the supremacy of federal power.
The men would far more closely align with conservatives today than with liberals. The email includes an equally false statement that the Constitution was “neutral,” not “biased,” though it denied the right to vote to all but white, land-owning men. The objection to the Black Lives Matter text eventually follows in the email before the demand that the material be removed “immediately.”
Furnari’s ire was sharpest against Black Lives Matter, which she described as a “political organization” (a falsehood: reactionary disinformation aside, the organization is a non-profit that neither runs candidates nor endorses them from its expressly decentralized structure). The organization, Furnari complained, “should not be pushed on in schools as some benevolent group.”
Woolbright repeated the inaccuracy about “centralized government, “which is not what everyone in the country wants,” and cited other passages, though the Black Lives Matter part rankled her most because, she said, children haven’t yet “learned to discern between the source of the information or biases or different points of view. So the fifth graders would take this as the gospel truth. So this was just one side, was my concern, and the parent caught this, not any of our staff.”
“I don’t think that that is completely accurate,” Moore said. “It’s not that staff was not aware of the text being there, but because it’s not text that we were using. It was not something for them to bring alarm to, because it wasn’t text that was a part of what we were going to use to teach the standard.”
Woolbright described the passage as “controversial” and, in an apparent echo of the reactions of the two other school districts in the state, as a violation of “a charge from our governor that we will not have critical race theory in our schools and so people are hypersensitive to this stuff.” She wanted the texts vetted.
McDonald was equally alarmed, saying “there’s a time and place for talking about social issues, but it’s not in language arts and it’s not in math and it’s not in the student skill time when they’re trying to learn study skills.” That approach would preclude Huckleberry Finn or The Grapes of Wrath or any Faulkner or Sylvia Plath in English classes–or Fahrenheit 451–since each in one way or another intersects with searing social, class, racial or mental health issues. McDonald wanted teachers “pre-reading and pre evaluating those materials and talking with people in their building to make sure that they’re really driving the curricular issues, rather than any of the other embedded messages that are there.”
“We have to have vigilance at the local level,” McDonald said. “When you weave it together, that’s part of the violation of the learning space.” She spoke of other “alarming,” but unspecified issues with materials available in virtual environments.
In fact, The district has a process in place for all the curriculum materials to be vetted, Moore said. Some supplemental materials, like the one in question, might not go through the same process. But literacy coaches go through the resources, decide which parts to use and which not. “It does give us an opportunity to get a closer look at the resources that we may not have known more intimately in our adoption period,” Moore said. “With any resource that we adopt there are going to be parts of it that we will use and parts of it that we will not use.” Moore said that the BLM passage was not used.
The board, including Woolbright and McDonald, had no issue with the district’s responsiveness to parents who raised objections, though that appears to be an extremely rare, outlying–and, as the case may be, possibly politically motivated–occasion.
Conklin, who had listened to most of the discussion silently, was in disbelief when she did speak. “It’s got nothing to do with critical race theory, if people know what critical race theory is, that has nothing to do with that,” she said of the Black Lives Matter passage. But she also wanted to share the perspective of a man she referred to as “a leader in the African American community” locally. She’d asked him to give his opinion on the passage.
“This is exactly what he shared,” she said, without identifying the man by name, “is that ‘As a 43 year old Black male who was educated in public education, and has spent 20-plus years working in public education, this is probably the very first time that I’ve seen relatable content to this extent. It’s really good in the fact that it is current. It’s relevant and rigorous. But I also know and recognize that as much as we need prompts like this, some may not be ready for them. In my eyes, this passage is comparable to ones written about the Holocaust and treatment of Jews. But for some reason, we can view them drastically differently. I’m concerned with the attempt to erase history and erase the present events of our country. It’s troubling and scary.”
Conklin was reading the words of Tim King, who had been one of the district’s top administrators until 2020, when he left after four years as the director of Exceptional Student Education.
“And I will say this,” Conklin said, “that this whole conversation is very concerning to me.” She noted the elimination of the word “equity” from the district’s goals, which the board had agreed to earlier in that same meeting. “It is extremely disappointing that one, we’re having a conversation about eliminating the possibility of a variety of texts for students to read. Are we going to get to book banning? Are we going to whitewash every single thing that our students read and take in an experience and review and analyze? This is very concerning to me because it sounds like this whole conversation has been hijacked by an extremist population of our community. And I don’t think it’s reflective of the larger part of our community. All I would say to you is, listening to these conversations, if you were a member of some of those subgroups, I just wonder what that impression would be the one message that sends.”
She added: “I am just, I’m shocked and disappointed. And frankly absolutely disgusted by the whole thing.”