There was another bitterly contentious Flagler County School Board workshop this afternoon. Board members for an hour brawled over fellow-member Jill Woolbright’s demanded ban of a particular book from school libraries, the stunning criminal complaint she filed against her own superintendent and board attorney, and processes followed and not followed.
There was a contentious school board meeting starting from early evening, with more than 100 people kept from entering the main chamber, which was at capacity, and where the removal of the same book from library shelves–George M. Johnson’s All Boys Aren’t Blue, a coming of age memoir of the Black and gay author–galvanized three hours of public comments opposing and supporting the ban: the board didn’t start its regular business until 9:40 this evening.
Between the two meetings, there was a loud demonstration organized by Jack Petocz, a student at Flagler Palm Coast High School, in front of the Government Services Building in defense of Johnson’s book and three other titles removed from libraries as a result of Woolbright’s sheriff’s complaint. The demonstration was loud because a somewhat smaller counter-demonstration opposite attempted to drown out the speeches, ironically with obscenities, white power signs, taunts, insults, and an aviary of bird-flipping: that band included masked and camouflaged men in militia gear. But for subtle and tactical policing by a substantial presence of Flagler County Sheriff’s deputies, the opposing demonstrations could have gotten out of hand.
Earlier in the day Petocz had circulated an image of his front stoop piled high with Amazon boxes filled with the books in contention–piles sent him by donors countering the potential ba. The books were stacked on a table at the demonstration–Angie Thomas’s The Hate You Give, All Boys Aren’t Blue, Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak, and Stamped: Racism, Antiracism and You by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi.
“These books are important,” Courtney VandeBunte, a former local teacher now running for a school board seat, told the protesters. “They tell us about the world. They give voices to marginalized groups who have been silenced for centuries. Keep doing the hard work and engaging in activism but don’t forget to protect each other. There are going to be bullies today. They are going to attempt to intimidate you or they have already tried. But we aren’t going to stoop to their level, we aren’t going to let them stop us from exercising our rights to intellectual freedom.”
The dual demonstrations were reminiscent of a similar dynamic in February 2020, when rainbow-draped LGBTQ advocates chanted and waved flags on one side and a significantly smaller but loudspeaker-aided group on the other lobbed homophobic and transphobic taunts.
As Cameron Driggers, an FPC senior, described this evening’s dynamic to board members later, he noted the irony of students’ voices not being heard in the chamber, and getting drowned out outside of it: “Just outside I was called the F slur, a gay boy, and a pedophile, simply for standing up for my community. So I am quite amused at the notion that any of the opponents of the book at hand are really invested in protecting minor children given they were more than happy to call minors slurs.”
Alexi Davis, another student, relied as several adult speakers did on a reading of a section of Florida law deeming any obscene material illegal in the hands of minor. “The law all these deputies are sworn to uphold,” Davis said, referring to the large contingent of Flagler County Sheriff’s deputies assigned to keep the peace at the evening demonstrations and the meeting. “It’s not open to interpretation. There’s no ambiguity and no wiggle room.”
She was perhaps unwittingly echoing the same argument that Woolbright and fellow-Board member Janet McDonald had made at the workshop earlier, when both board members considered the intervention of a district committee now reviewing the books extraneous, though the statement about “no ambiguity and no wiggle room” is, of course, not accurate: even the U.S. Supreme Court, when it last addressed the matter of appropriateness of library holdings in schools, in a 1982 decision, split 5-4 (against book bans), with every one of the nine justices filing a separate opinion.
“It’s not a matter of views, it’s a matter of the law,” Woolbright had said, calling the book in question “prurient,” “obscene,” and lacking any serious literary, artistic, scientific or political value.
“Crimes don’t go to a committee to determine if something’s a crime,” Woolbright said in defense of filing the criminal complaint. “Crimes go to legal, and that would be on school board attorney or that would be the sheriff’s office. Those were my only two choices. Those were my only two choices. And so in my opinion, I’m not an attorney. It qualifies as obscenity. And if it qualifies for obscenity it is prohibited.”
“It’s going to take a little bit more than just some of us sitting around a table,” Woolbright said. “There’s attorneys that can figure this out or there’s law enforcement that can figure this out.”
Board member Cheryl Massaro excoriated Woolbright for filing a criminal complaint against the superintendent and attorney (“who does that?” a bewildered Massaro asked rhetorically). “This is basically taken out of our hands,” she said. “It is a criminal case at this point. So we are going to have to sit back and let the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office, and their investigative team do their due diligence and their job, and, and then will react to their, their findings, because that’s where it’s at now, and there’s really nothing much more we can do.”
Sheriff Rick Staly, clearly displeased with being put in the position of arbitrating the issue, was blunt in an interview on Monday: “We don’t decide what the community standard is,” he said, referring to the legal distinction, established by the Supreme Court, that different communities have different “obscenity” standards. “This is a school board issue. If they have concerns, they need to give direction to their superintendent, and her, to her employees.” He added: “They need to do their job and not try to drag in the Sheriff’s Office.”
Nevertheless, since Woolbright filed the criminal complaint, the matter is “under review” by the Sheriff’s Office, with a potential criminal investigation, but not an actual investigation yet: like any police agency faced with an inquiry into an alleged crime, the agency is weighing whether a crime has taken place before taking the inquiry further.
Contacted again this evening and provided the comments Woolbright and Massaro made about it being the sheriff’s purview, Staly was just as blunt: “Neither comments are correct,” he said. “Anyone can file an allegation of criminal conduct. That doesn’t mean a crime occurred. The complaint and allegation is still being reviewed to determine if the allegation meets the threshold for a criminal investigation under Florida law. In the meantime the school board can do their own due diligence concerning policy issues or concerns they may have.” (Massaro again repeated the inaccuracy about the matter being out of the district’s hands, and that just because the complaint was filed, “it has to be investigated.” It does not.)
For all the demonstrations, all the sound, all the fury, Woolbright’s criminal complaint or hers and McDonald’s larger aims regarding library and instructional materials weren’t on the board agenda this evening–or even this afternoon. So there was nothing to decide, nothing to vote on in that regard–and nothing was. What was on the workshop agenda was a discussion of procedures relating to books or instructional materials that may be challenged.
The discussion item, led by Lashakia Moore, the director of curriculum, had been scheduled weeks ago and was not related to the Woolbright matter. Very quickly board members tried to sway Moore in that direction. Very quickly Moore made it clear that she wouldn’t take part in the board’s internecine dispute (not least because she will have objectively to read the books in contention and evaluate them), and finally all but excused herself, if with the chairman’s nod, as the board members began to act a bit like some of those taunting the students downstairs would not much later.
The district’s evaluation is, in fact, ongoing under Moore’s leadership, and will not be completed for two weeks. The internal committee includes Moore, media and reading specialists.
The book ban wasn’t the only subject on speakers’ minds at the evening meeting. Many also spoke in opposition of the board’s decision, not yet ratified, to drop the word “equity” from its long-term goals, and several of the district’s service employees pointed out the inequity of the recent $15-an-hour wage granted bus drivers and paraprofessionals, while others received only a 66-cent an hour raise.
But by far the dominant issue was the Johnson book ban, or bans. There were those who called it pornography, child porn, obscenity, indoctrination, filth and the occasional comparison with Hustler, the hardcore glossy Larry Flynt founded in 1974 (including by a priest, whose familiarity with Hustler he did not seek to hide). And there were those who called it liberating, relatable, acclaimed, revealing, essential and so on.
Often there was no opposition to the book per se, to its publication, its availability in bookstores or the public library–but in school libraries. One of the speakers who opposed its presence in school complimented the quality of its writing. And in many instances, even those voicing opposition to the book stopped short of saying it should not be in the high school libraries. They wanted it out of middle school libraries, which may be a moot point: the book was in the two high schools’ libraries, but may not have been in either of the middle school libraries (it was previously reported to have been at Buddy Taylor).
In contrast with the ugliness of the harassment and insults lashed at the demonstrators outside, there was no lack of eloquence for the duration of the long public-comment segment. Those three hours proved more civically absorbing than–as previous meetings have been, than the workshop had been–abrasive. It was closer to a debate than a duel, each side making its points, often colorfully but never brutally, a few of veiled threats aside. Only the rarest audience speakers broke rules. At 8:45, a speaker insisted on defying Board Chairman Trevor Tucker’s admonition against reading a passage that started with something vaguely explicit. Tucker ordered the speaker’s mic cut off. The man continued. He was escorted out by a deputy, and for a moment the audience’s agitation almost led Tucker to call for a recess. McDonald said violators should be escorted out, but the board should continue, since it was nearly at the end of public comments. It did.
Abbey Cook, a teacher in the district, began her statement by citing a passage in the Bible–Ezekiel, 23:20: “There she lusted after her lovers, whose genitals were like those of donkeys and whose emission was like that of horses.” She was stopped, enabling her to make the point: though rife in what, out of context, could be deemed “obscene,” no Bibles are being thrown out of libraries (or homes). “I believe this to be one of the favorite books of that same school board member,” she said, referring to Woolbright, who frequently appeals to her faith and the Bible as guiding lights.
The board members had the last word–as they usually do at the end of board meetings–each with sharp words of their own: Colleen Conklin apologized to the school community for the recent “drama” and showed a video message from George W. Johnson, the author, and Massaro retreated from her previous endorsement of the district abandoning the word “equity.”
Woolbright started by blaming the controversy on FlaglerLive, saying she called for the removal of one title, not four (as we reported), even thought this very evening she again acknowledged telling the superintendent to “check” into the other three, which were all pulled from circulation. Superintendent Cathy Mittlestadt in her closing comments left no doubts that the directive she got from Woolbright did, in fact, regard all four books. Woolbright went on to say she “grew up in an extremely abusive home,” was abused by her own father, and that Johnson’s book is “a trigger like no trigger has ever been known before.” But she also said she “lost trust” in the superintendent.
The meeting adjourned at 11:43 p.m.