Book bans may be a thing of the past in Flagler County schools as the district today presented a library opt-out provision for prohibitive parents, while leaving access free to all books for all other students. The approach, as draconianly restrictive for those who want to exercise it and as liberal as a university library’s open-stack policy for the freer-minded could, in effect, make even book challenges moot.
Stacks at the district’s nine libraries–five elementary schools, two middle schools and two high schools–will remain open, accessible and free of bans, while giving parents who want more restrictions on what their child reads the option to limit or prevent borrowing privileges only in those cases. But restriction-minded parents will not have the ability to ban a book for the broader student body, according to procedures presented to the Flagler County School Board this afternoon by Assistant Superintendent LaShakia Moore, who oversees the district’s library system.
The district will formalize a three-tiered approach to book access in coming weeks. Here’s how it works.
Level 1 is open access, open stacks, with one exception for elementary school students, who would have to have parental approval to borrow any book labeled as “young adult.”
Level 2 would give parents or guardians the ability to submit up to five titles that their child would be prohibited from checking out. “This is a practice that we already have in place,” Moore said. “We did not feel comfortable increasing that beyond five books, especially when you get into the middle and high school.” She cited logistics.
Level 3 would be the most restrictive. It would be a “pre-approval,” meaning essentially that for that particular child, all books are prohibited from being checked out unless the parent or guardian “would go on and essentially approve what books their child is allowed to check out in our media centers,” Moore said. That approach has been tried out with some families and in some schools, Moore said, “so we’re confident in our ability to roll it out.”
Before invoking Level 2 or 3, the assistant superintendent said parents would be urged to meet with media specialists, literacy coaches and media aides or administrators to discuss their options. Moore described that approach as giving parents the chance to be “empowered on what are some options that they can do without going all the way to the extreme of a pre approval list”–a diplomatic way of saying that parents could be talked down the ledge of prohibition. (Librarians are generally trained to exercise their profession with their own version of the Hippocratic oath: first, do no ban.)
“So showing them how to create a ‘tidal wave’ account where they can go on and read the reviews and they can go on and read more information around the books that their child is wanting to select,” Moore said. “That is more of a conversation piece between the family in the home.” Moore stressed the importance not only of parental involvement, but of student involvement as well. “It is important that we make sure that we inform our students as well of what the changes are so that they can be a part of the conversations with their families,” Moore said. “We want our students to know what we’re where we’re informing their families of so that it can be a family conversation.”
The opt-out approach could render moot another substantial element from the recent dynamic over controversial books: the theatrical demands at public meetings for bans or this or that title, at times by individuals who don’t even have children in schools but who thrive on the public platform that meetings offer, either to fuel conflict or score ideological points as part of a broader political agenda. As such, the opt-out approach is both a pragmatic procedure and a powerful neutralizing agent.
Moore and her team are still crafting the procedures, which will have n o bearing on the Flagler County Public Library system. The school procedures will eventually be rolled out through emails to parents and through websites, though in effect, for the overwhelming majority of parents, who have no issues with open stacks, open borrowing and no surveillance, the plan will not alter anything. It is only an added layer of control for those parents who feel they have not had any.
Moore did not make her report available as part of the school board agenda, even though agenda materials are to be included when discussed at meetings. She said it was “not in its final form.” Cagier administrations typically hold back such documents, even though they are public–and should be released, even in draft form–in attempts to control the message. (Former Palm Coast City Manager Jim Landon was particularly adept with that approach; Superintendent Cathy Mittelstadt appears to be adopting some of the same techniques.)
The district took a black eye late last year over School Board member Jill Woolbright’s attempt to ban four titles, among them All Boys Aren’t Blue, the memoir of a New Jersey author who grew up Black and gay, which Woolbright falsely termed pornographic and “criminal” in a criminal complaint against Mittlestadt. Woolbright challenged all four books’ presence on library shelves. They were withdrawn. A committee headed by Moore reviewed the challenge, returned three of the titles to the shelves, overriding the challenge, and said the fourth–All Boys–would be returned pending certain procedures getting developed. But in her letter to Woolbright, Mittelstadt said that book had been withdrawn. She did not mention the pending procedures, creating the impression that the book had been banned (as it vey much is for the moment).
Meanwhile students protested and adults took sides, again turning school board meetings into embarrassing displays of bile, acrimony and reams of defamatory and inaccurate statements against the book in question. Similar bans or attempted bans were causing identical reactions elsewhere in the country, causing the American Library Association to condemn the bans. The Flagler County Sheriff’s Office investigated Woolbright’s complaint and tossed it, finding nothing criminal in the book’s presence at schools.
Woolbright today called Moore’s system “awesome,” asking only whether parents will be given the ability to surveil all their children’s book-borrowing by remote computer. Moore said the Destiny system (the local school libraries’ cataloguing and borrowing system) has that capability, but library staff has yet to be trained to the point where she could answer yes or no, regarding its implementation.
“So the question I’m sure people want to know and I know I’ve been asked before,” Board member Colleen Conklin asked Moore today, “now that we have this policy or procedure that we’re putting into place where parents will have an opportunity to opt out, will the book All Boys Aren’t Blue be put back on the shelves and in circulation?”
Even though her own committee report had said it should be, Moore demurred to the superintendent, the report having produced only a recommendation to the superintendent, not a binding decision. “And because the committee has already made a recommendation, the next steps with that would then come from the directive of the superintendent,” Moore said.
Mittelstadt was non-committal, applauding Moore and “the team’s progress thus far.”
“It is in collaboration with our media specialists,” Moore said. “Because they’re in the weeds, they’re the one that’s doing the work.”