On Nov. 3, Flagler County School Board member Jill Woolbright met for her usual scheduled session with Superintendent Cathy Mittelstadt. Woolbright this time requested that School Board attorney Kristy Gavin be present.
At the meeting, Woolbright raised objections about four books circulating in Flagler County school libraries. She wanted them pulled. The books are “The Hate You Give,” “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” “Speak” and “Stamped: Racism, Antiracism and You.” Three of the books are by Black authors. One is about the police shooting of an unarmed Black teen. One is about the traumatic effects of a rape and its aftermath on a teen girl. One is about growing up Black and queer. And one is, as its title states, about racism. All four have been critically acclaimed as books for teens, some either winning or getting short-listed from some of the literary world’s top awards. (See more detailed descriptions of the books below.)
Woolbright, who gave no indication of having read any of the books or known about them previously, claimed that some “constituents” had raised concerns about the books. She did not name any. At board meetings, Woolbright frequently refers to “people” and “some” and “constituents” whose complaints or concerns but rarely if ever substantiates the complaints beyond that vagueness, or the occasional name.
But those same books are on a frequent-flier list of books currently facing challenges or bans across the country, the titles gaining notoriety through social media memes and out-of-context quotes from the book’s more suggestive passages. While some of the passages are explicit, depicting sex as either trauma, discovery or both, none are prurient, gratuitous, obscene or pornographic. None, for example, approach the violence and prurience of Popeye’s rape of 17-year-old Temple with a corncob in Faulkner’s “Requiem for a Nun,” following which Popeye pimps out the girl so he can watch. None include the copious use of the N-word and the latent racism of Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn.” None approach the irony of the “Nausicaa” episode in James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” where Leopold Bloom masturbates to Gerty MacDowell’s leg. None quite approximate the male brutality, serial rape and police-state themes of “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Those books, all by white authors, three of them male and dead, are frequent, never-noticed titles on high school reading lists.
There are no indications that Woolbright–who is running for re-election in 2022–is representing anything more than either herself or a handful of constituents, if that. No parents have filed a book challenge at either high school or the middle schools.
Never in the Flagler County school district’s history has a book been challenged or banned, according to Gavin, at least on the district level.
Woolbright now has.
She has done so without quite respecting policy. By policy, a book challenge must be filed in writing by the complainant, and it must be filed starting at the school level where the book in question is located. The district is actually the first appeal level.
Four years ago Woolbright would not have had standing to bring a challenge to a book (as opposed to challenging the book-challenge policy, which is entirely in her right if she has support to do so on the board: that’s what next week’s workshop will explore). Until 2017, when a book was challenged, it was not only required to go through a school committee first, but the challenge had to be filed by a parent or guardian with a child at that school. In other words, any person off the street could not challenge a book that happens to be on a shelf in a library, simply because that person objects. Otherwise any mercenary motive by anyone anywhere could lead to a challenge at any school. There had to be standing.
The law changed in 2017, giving any parents or residents of the county the right to challenge: “Each district school board must adopt a policy regarding an objection by a parent or a resident of the county to the use of a specific instructional material, which clearly describes a process to handle all objections and provides for resolution.” That’s what gives Woolbright standing–not her role as board member, though she clearly used her role as a board member to go directly to the superintendent.
The superintendent and the attorney took the Woolbright complaint as such only because Gavin was documenting it in writing. But Woolbright herself did not even file it–until she filed it in a more oblique sense, by filing a complaint with the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office against Mittlestadt on Wednesday (Nov. 10), because Woolbright was upset that Mittlestadt had not informed the other board members.
“Jill advised the reason she contacted the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office is because the superintendent has not notified the other school board members,” the sheriff’s report filed on Nov. 9 states, using the Sheriff’s Office’s customary habit of referring to complainants by their first name. “Jill was advised by the school board attorney that the other board members would be made aware. As of today’s date, Jill advised the other school board members have not been made aware by an email.”
But administrators are barred by law from being conduits of information between board members, especially on matters that may be up for a vote, as book-challenge and book-banning policies may well be. Board members are free to email memos or cc emails to other board members, as long as there is no back and forth conversation, or anything that may be construed as an exchange, outside of an open, noticed meeting. The superintendent had not informed other board members yet since the investigation had not concluded. Normally, there is a 14-day period for a challenge to be addressed.
Woolbright in her complaint to the sheriff “states it is a crime to have the book in the media centers,” according to the complaint, “and believes there are other books with similar content. Jill believes whoever is responsible for allowing the books into the Flagler County Schools media centers should be held accountable.”
Woolbright, Gavin said, is basing her assessment on two sections of Florida law (read them here and here) that define what may be legal and not legal in students’ hands. The definition under one section of law is so broad as to potentially encompass any depiction of sex in any book. A more precise definition in another section of law seeks to define “obscenity,” focusing on prurience and specific depictions of, say, erections, public hair and so on, but the depiction must be “lewd and lascivious,” itself a subjective term that nevertheless considerably narrows the window for those peeping for objections.
“It’s going to be the committee that’s going to take a look as to whether or not” the books are violating the law, Gavin said, “and it’s specific to the community. What may be acceptable for a community in California, it may not be acceptable for a community in Florida or or in Idaho.”
A school-based committee would consist of teachers, administrators and media specialists. Since Woolbright circumvented that–and the superintendent and attorney are apparently allowing the circumvention–the challenge will be handled at the district level by the curriculum department, which is headed by LaShakia Moore. It will involve members of her department and reading specialists. The decision is then rendered to the superintendent. The decision may be appealed to the school board.
“The board members have been advised, they were advised yesterday of the concern,” Gavin said in an interview today, regarding Woolbright, acknowledging the delay. “Until we are aware whether we have an issue or not, to report to the other school board members whether there is an issue or not, the superintendent thought it was premature.”
Gavin noted that this type of book challenges are taking place across the state and the country, the challenges mirroring each other in tone and titles, while the district locally would apply its method of dealing with a challenge, unused though it’s been. “Not everything is immediate and urgent to be reported to the other board members.”
“Disingenuous,” School Board member Colleen Conklin said of Woolbright’s complaint. “All she had to do was send an email to Cathy thanking her for the meeting time and the discussion and looking forward to the outcome of her investigation and cc’d the board members. If she was so worried about the board members knowing, that’s a very simple thing she could have done.”
Woolbright did not respond to a request for an interview.
On Wednesday, Bobby Bossardet, the assistant superintendent, went to the FPC media center (the library), ordered the four titles pulled from circulation, asked–and received–the names of students who currently had any of the books checked out, and took a copy of each of the books to the district office for review.
The same four titles were also pulled from circulation at Matanzas High School. Buddy Taylor Middle School had some of the titles. They were also pulled. Indian Trails Middle School had none.
“What triggered Mr. Bossardet going to the school was when we found out about the police report being filed,” Gavin said.
Each of the books had numerous copies available to students at the two high school libraries, and some of the books were available at Buddy Taylor. By policy, Gavin said, once a title is challenged, it must be pulled from circulation pending the outcome of the investigation. That does not mean the book has been banned, or that it will be banned. But the policy states that the title may not be available to students either to borrow or consult at the library until the challenge is over.
Gavin said she has the name of the students who currently have checked out the books under challenge. “Those names are with me in my office, I haven’t even looked at that list, I don’t even care who the students are,” Gavin said. The names were gathered only in case the committee rules that a book is to be banned. If that happens, and some of the books have been checked out, then those students or their parents would be contacted to return the book.
The only previous book challenges, and there have been only two documented, took place at the school level.
One such took place in 2001, when Monica Campana had just started as the librarian at Indian Trails school. “It was a parent who didn’t like a Walter Dean Myers book,” Campana said, speaking by phone from Charleston, S.C. She retired six years ago. The book, “Dope Sick,” from 2009, was “about a young couple in love trying to do the right thing, finish school, and the boy’s brother was a drug addict. There was a description in the story of him making some kind of drug in a spoon in the kitchen, and she did not like that. We had a policy in place, I’m thinking they still have it, it went to a committee, everyone had to read the book in its entirety, and the committee had to decide whether to take off the book from the shelves or not. It had won the Coretta Scott King Award. It’s really difficult to remove a book that’s won awards, because it has literary merit. She did not win the challenge.” The parent did not appeal the decision to the district.
“It turns out the woman had drug issues and that’s what she was scared of,” Campana said. “It’s fear.” Monica and her husband Cesar, who was also on the call, had just been discussing a news report they’d heard about “Speak,” one of the four books being challenged in Flagler, and which Cesar had taught for five years at FPC, where he was an English teacher, and frequently taught “The Catcher in the Rye,” once a favorite of book-banners for its explosions of “goddamn,” “hell,” “crap,” “ass” and its occasional lusts. (Campana had also been a football coach).
“I think any parent who wants to protest a book should be tested in that book to see if they’d read it,” Cesar Campana said, “and they should be tested on ‘Fahrenheit 451’ to see if they understand what can happen with these things.”
In 2010, FPC briefly banned performances of “To Kill a Mockingbird” in an FPC stage production, over vague concerns about the repeated use of the N-word. Then as now, the concerns were never substantiated beyond one or two people. Community outrage forced the district to retreat. The play was performed to great acclaim.
Monica Campana, a champion of access and the freedom to read in her decade and a half in the district, recalled a ritual: “The first time I saw a student, every single class I would say: there may be books in here that your parents do not want you to read, there may be books that offend you, and you have every right to return them,” she said. “But you do not have the right to tell the kids sitting next to you that they can’t read that book, if their families are OK with it.” Both Campanas made a distinction between assigned books–which may also be declined by a student who does not want to read them for whatever reason–and unassigned library books, which are not being forced in any way on any student, and would therefore have even less of a reason to be challenged.
The Four Books Jill Woolbright Is Challenging:
“The Hate You Give,” the 2017 Angie Thomas novel about a white police officer shooting an unarmed Black teen. The book debuted atop the New York Times Bestseller list, stayed there 50 weeks, was adapted as a movie the following year, and won over a dozen awards, including the Coretta Scott King Book Award and the National Book Award for young adults. Thomas is Black.
“All Boys Aren’t Blue,” a 2020 memoir by journalist and activist George M. Johnson about coming of age, family, bullies, gender identity, sexuality and race. The book is on the American Library Association’s Rainbow List, an annual list of ““books with significant gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender content, and which are aimed at youth, birth through age 18.” The title was also a Publishers Weekly pick for anti-racism. Johnson is Black.
“Speak” is a 1999 novel by Laurie Halse Anderson. Based on the author’s experience, it is about the rape of a high school freshman girl and its traumatic effects, which, among other things, cause her to be unable to speak. The book, routinely taught in Flagler County schools, was a 1999 National Book Award finalist, has won numerous awards, and has been among the books most often banned or challenged in American libraries since its publication. Anderson is white.
“Stamped: Racism, Antiracism and You” is a 2019 book novelist Jason Reynolds wrote in collaboration with Ibrahim X. Kendi, the writer and historian and founding director of the Boston University Center for Antiracist Research. Kendi had written “Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America” in 2016, when it won the National Book Award for non-fiction. The Reynolds-Keni book is a “remix” for children and is intended to start conversations about race. Reynolds and Kendi are Black.
An Excerpt from the “Losing My Virginity Twice” Chapter of George M. Johnson’s “All Boys Aren’t Blue”
There was so much excitement running through my body. This was much more than losing my virginity. For once, I was consenting to the sexual satisfaction of my body. This moment also confirmed that sex could look how I wanted it to look. And that it could be passionate and kind, but most importantly, fun and satisfying. His body felt great in my mouth.
I came up after a while and kissed him again. We both got up and went into his bedroom, where we got completely naked. He took off his clothes and immediately lay on his stomach. I then took off my shirt, and then my boxer briefs. I got behind him. There was moonlight coming through the shades of the dark room. Two Black boys under the glow of blue moonlight. How poetic, dare I say ironic?
Now, I was scared as hell. One, because I didn’t know what I was doing and clearly, he did. Two, because it was still college, and my fear of word getting out that I was inexperienced or bad in bed would have been too big of a campus rumor. Let alone that I was having sex with men and a friend of someone in my chapter.
For the first few minutes, we dry humped and grinded. I was behind him, with my stomach on his back as we kissed. After a few minutes of fun and games, he got up and went to his nightstand, where he pulled out a condom and some lube. He then lay down on his stomach. I knew what I had to do even if I had never done it before. I had one point of reference, though, and that was seven-plus years of watching pornography. Although the porn was heterosexual, it was enough of a reference point for me to get the job done.
I remember the condom was blue and flavored like cotton candy. I put some lube on and got him up on his knees, and I began to slide into him from behind. I tried not to force it because I imagined that it would be painful; I didn’t want this moment to be painful. So I eased in, slowly, until I heard him moan.
As we moved, I could tell he was excited—I was, too, but the pride in me told me not to show it. I felt like I was in control and proud of myself for getting it right on the first try—all the while still being nervous. I wanted to stay dominant in that moment. We went at it for about fifteen minutes before I started to get that feeling. Weakness in the legs, numbness in the waist. I finally came and let out a loud moan—to the point where he asked me to quiet down for the neighbors. I pulled out of him and kissed him while he masturbated. Then, he also came.
That night was glorious. I had conquered a fear and had sex with a man on my own terms. The years of suppressing my identity and not dating or kissing had all come down to this one magical night in an apartment on the outskirts of Richmond, Virginia. I didn’t want to leave, and he didn’t make me. I did, however, get up to make a phone call to one of my line brothers. I left him a voicemail saying that I had finally had sex.