All Boys Aren’t Blue, the George Johnson memoir about growing up gay and Black that drew a challenge and attempted ban from Flagler School Board member Jill Woolbright, will not be returning to high school school library shelves, even though a district committee appointed to review it unanimously found it “appropriate for use” and availability on library shelves.
“As a result of the book complaints received, I am requesting that the book All Boys Aren’t Blue be removed from all Flagler Schools Media Centers at this time,” Superintendent Cathy Mittelstadt told Flagler school board members in an email last night. “In making this decision, I took into consideration the recommendations of the District Media Review Committee, my personal reading of the book, input from those both in favor of and opposed to the book, and consultation with some of my peers from across the state.”
Mittelstadt’s decision is the more surprising for going against the district committee’s recommendation, which was to keep the book on the shelves. But even the committee had recommended that the book be withheld pending the establishment of an “opt-out” procedure that would give parents the opportunity to stop their child from accessing the book, if they so chose. (See the committee’s memos here.)
In that regard, Mittlestadt appeared to leave the door open for the ban not be permanent–and to merge her decision with that of the committee, eventually. The district is “currently working on district wide procedures that would better allow parents to be aware of the offerings in our media centers and options to opt out of certain titles for their children should they wish to do so. Procedures such as these will allow books with sensitive content to be available to students whose parents allow it,” Mittelstadt wrote the board members. The superintendent said the procedures will be laid out at an upcoming information workshop–but not at this afternoon’s 3 p.m. workshop, which is focused on the coming board meeting’s agenda items only.
Mittelstadt did not make clear whether the new approach would apply to All Boys Aren’t Blue which, in essence, is incontrovertibly banned for now–a stunning outcome in a county that has never removed a book from school library circulation before (at least not beyond the normal removal of old or non-circulating books). The letter to Woolbright about All Boys left no doubt that the book was to be removed, with no other option. But School Board Attorney Kristy Gavin said the superintendent’s position does mean that once new procedures are in place, All Boys Aren’t Blue could be “brought back” within those parameters.
So Woolbright did not score an outright victory, but at least–and possibly at most–a temporary one.
Three other titles that Woolbright challenged–The Hate U Give, Speak and Stamped: Racism, Antiracism and You will be returned to library shelves without restrictions. “At this time,” Mittelstadt wrote Woolbright, “I feel that these books are appropriate and should be retained as a resource available to teachers and students in our schools.” The superintendent said the books have been in media centers for years.
The committee’s report was not included in the email top board members. So the committee’s rationale for keeping all four titles is not yet clear. (The committee met once, on Dec. 1.) The district released the report–actually, four memorandums, one for each book under challenge–at noon.
“The district understands parents and guardians play a major role in guiding their child’s reading and library use,” the committee’s memo about All Boys stated. “It is important that each family has the right to determine which library resources are acceptable for its children and that we afford that right to each family.” The committee’s approach falls on the side of access first, restrictions last–and those restrictions would be catered to individual parents, rather than the other way around. In other words, the committee’s proposed “opt-out” goes from the premise that a book should be freely available except in specified cases when a parent or guardian would object to having that book circulate in one particular child’s hands. The committee is not recommending the sort of ban that would remove the book from circulation–or even require an opt-in provision, such as a permission from a parent, for a child to read the book.
Mittelstadt’s email to the school board was a lot more vague in those regards–and her letter to Woolbright was categorical. But a statement Mittelstadt issued as part of the district’s announcement at noon qualified the letter to Woolbright, however: “Director Moore and her team,” Mittelstadt said, referring to LaShakia Moore, the curriculum director who oversees school libraries, “is prepared and is developing procedures that we want to communicate to our Board, to our staff, and our community, parents, and students so that they know how to appropriately go through and have an opportunity to access materials that may be sensitive in nature, with the parents having a part in the decision-making process. In Flagler Schools, that does not exist right now, as a district, systematically throughout all of our schools. I think it’s critically important until we have the procedure in place, that particular book should be pulled from the availability of our students to access it.”
Specific to All Boys, Mittelstadt added: “I believe in a procedure to give our parents the opportunity to participate in that process. It is important that we look at how the author has described his book in the prologue, in addition, he has made public comments as to the age-appropriateness of this book, is 10th, 11th, and 12th grade. Our high schools are 9th through 12th grade. So we would need to create a procedure within our school media centers that have age-appropriate locations for sensitive matters within our school buildings. We can achieve that and we will.”
It is not yet known whether Woolbright will challenge the superintendent’s decision regarding other titles, appealing it to the school board, though if she did so, she would not have a vote in the board’s ultimate decision.
Mittelstadt’s decision reflects the tightrope she has been walking on a sharply divided school board, with two board members pushing for bans–Woolbright and Janet McDonald–and three advocating access–Trevor Tucker, Colleen Conklin and Cheryl Massaro. The book challenges are the latest issue to have divided the board in a year of divisive debates involving masking, vaccines, the word “equity” in district documents and the board’s own broken dynamics. (The board is discussing its proposed strategic plan at this afternoon’s workshop, where the removal of the word “equity” from the document’s language has become an issue.)
The summary Mittelstadt sent board members included two letters to Woolbright, since she had filed the challenges, one referring to the return of the three titles to library shelves, the other referring to the withholding of All Boys Aren’t Blue. Woolbright in early November filed a criminal complaint about All Boys, claiming the availability of the book in students’ reach was “criminal,” and calling for those who made the book available to be “held accountable.” The Sheriff’s Office found no grounds for a criminal investigation, kicking back the complaint to the district’s own procedures.
Mittelstadt would not address the matter when asked this morning at an unrelated event, saying she would address it when ready. One board member described the decision as a “diplomatic” way of ultimately keeping the book in restricted circulation without going the way of a ban. As such, the district would be developing a new way of dealing with books that may be controversial, but whose removal would expose the district to as much controversy–if not legal challenges–as keeping them on the shelves without restrictions.
Unless the approach taken is that recommended by the district’s reviewing committee, the protocols could potentially entail the requirement that students have a parent’s permission to access the book, which, in the case of LGBTQ-themed books, could itself be an issue: Johnson’s book addresses the issue of adolescent sexuality’s confusions, privacy and possible reluctance to be “out” in the eyes of one’s parents or friends. But since Moore was in charge of the committee, it is much more likely that its recommended approach will be the one that frames the new access policy–unless Woolbright and McDonald mount another assault against broad access.