A FlaglerLive investigation
The Flagler County school district made national news exactly a year ago when School Board member Jill Woolbright sought to ban four books from school libraries and filed a criminal complaint against the superintendent for allowing alleged obscenity to be on library shelves. Board member Janet McDonald joined Woolbright in the campaign. One book was banned. The other three were returned to library shelves.
Woolbright and McDonald lost elections to remain in public office, and will vacate their seats next week. By summer the district had developed a new policy intended to balance parents’ rights to prohibit their own children from accessing certain library books while preserving the right of full access for others. The policy became a model around the state. The policy should have made book challenges moot.
It did not. The school district has been quietly and steadily banning or removing books from library shelves at Flagler Palm Coast High School, Matanzas High School, Indian Trails Middle School and Buddy Taylor Middle School since summer, FlaglerLive has found.
Lucky, by Alice Sebold: banned.
Push, by Sapphire, banned.
A Court of Mist and Fury, by Sarah Maas, banned.
The Upside of Unrequited, banned.
The Haters, the book by Jesse Andrews, banned.
l8r g8r, Lauren Myracle’s novel, banned.
The district has been removing the books in two ways, but in both cases after receiving book challenges from people wanting them banned. Over the summer, libraries simply removed the controversial titles from circulation as part of the “weeding” of shelves that periodically takes place anyway, thus masking controversial removals by lumping them with more routine removals, as with books that have been worn down or lost their relevance. In other cases, schools banned books outright after meetings of media committees. Those meetings are ongoing, with a lists of books yet to be judged.
Either way, the bans and removals have taken place without public notice or discussion beyond librarians’ or committee’s judgments, and without involvement of the School Board.
Existing policy requires any challenges to be filed at the school level, where a committee handles it there first. Before Woolbright’s manufactured scandal last fall, there had not been a book challenge in the county in two decades, the last one traced back to the early 2000s at Indian Trails Middle School, where it was quickly handled and dismissed by the librarian there: the book survived. But book challenges in the last year and a half have become part of a militant push to use school libraries and students’ reading materials as bargaining chips in an ideological culture war across the country.
The Florida front has been especially active. On one hand, Gov. Ron DeSantis has sided with the culture warriors under the guise of empowering parental rights. On the other, he signed legislation expanding the rights of individuals to challenge any media or curricular materials in schools on vague criteria. So “the District was required to develop a process that allows concerned parents and/or members of the community to submit a request for consideration of a book that is on the District’s shelves that may not be appropriate,” Kristy Gavin, the district’s attorney, wrote one of the challengers in August, explaining the process.
Serial challenges have followed. They have been identical in district after district, reflecting more of an ideological strategy to undermine educational norms than earnestly to engage with the literary or cultural value of books.
As is usually the case with book bans, those filing the challenges are not reading the books, particularly not with challenges filed in Flagler County, FlaglerLive found.
The Flagler district has made filing challenges much easier. If the book is on several schools’ library shelves, one challenge will be sufficient for a committee, or joint committees, to make wholesale rulings applying to the book’s presence in all schools. Previously, a challenge had to be filed at each school where the book was present.
If the person making the challenge wants to appeal the decision, the appeal goes to a district committee. That step can be defanged: the superintendent has authority to overrule the district committee, as Superintendent Cathy Mittlestadt did regarding All Boys Aren’t Blue last year. The district committee recommended that the book be returned to library shelves. Mittlestadt overruled. The superintendent’s decision may be appealed to the school board. No such appeals have been filed to reinstate that book, or any of the books banned since: when few people know about the bans, fewer still are likely to challenge the challengers.
The challengers consist mostly of three individuals who are associated with Flagler County’s “moms for liberty,” a vigilante group that’s led the charge of banning books and restricting rights of LGBTQ students across the state, with DeSantis’s support. As often as not the group’s members don’t have children in schools–just as Woolbright did not when she challenged the books. But Florida law gives any resident of a county the right to challenge books or any curricular materials in any schools in the county of his, her or their residence. (Challengers’ pronouns are almost exclusively binary.)
According to a comprehensive list of challenges filed in Flagler schools and obtained by FlaglerLive, the three challengers are Shannon Rambow, president of the local moms for liberty, Cheryl Lackey and Terri McDonald. Others are more peripherally involved. Rambow and Lackey were contacted by email and asked what led them to challenge the books. neither replied, other than for one line from Lackey: “How did you get my information?” The trio filed two dozen challenges at the four high and middle schools, with some of the challenges overlapping titles.
Rambow initially filed the first list of challenges on Aug. 3, consisting of 17 titles.
“Ms. Rambow has been working really hard to be part of the school system and her group,” School Board member Cheryl Massaro said from the dais at the end of the Sept. 20 board meeting. “They’ve read books, and books, and books, and these are books that the majority of our media specialists don’t have time to look at. There’s thousands of books in the library.” Massaro claimed Rambow and her group had read them and “helped bring certain things to our attention,” a reference to Rambow’s list.
Massaro was misinformed. FlaglerLive obtained the entirety of Rambow’s, Lackey’s and McDonald’s communications with all school district employees since summer. There is no indication from any of the communications that any of them have read the books, let alone that they understand the books they are challenging from a literary or contextual perspective.
Rather, the challenges appear to be word-for-word, cut-and-paste copies from a website drawn up as a guide for vigilante groups across the nation, literally giving the militants chapter and verse capabilities to cite books and quote by page number the passages they find objectionable, down to the number of objectionable words used in the given books. Rambow cited the website in an email to a district staffer on Aug. 3: “I can provide book reports and additional information or you can find it at booklook.info,” she wrote “That is a great site all media people should review it and get more info on the books that are in our schools.”
The website describes itself as “a group of volunteers reading, preparing reports, and exposing the content of books that contain concerning material.” But it does not provide the same transparency about its own identity: there is no “About” page, no names of volunteers or leadership structure, no explanations or criteria followed in drawing up “book reports” that find titles objectionable. The website was created last March in Arizona, but it hides its identity otherwise, though it is clearly the product of moms for liberty groups, based on some of the videos it posts: “M4L Fighting Against Porn” (sic.), for example, and “19 More books To be Pulled from Libraries.”
The website is every book challenge’s shortcut. Isabel Sebold’s Lucky, for example, uses the word “bitch” six times, “fuck” seven times and “shit” three times, according to the site’s “book report.” The novel Push, by Sapphire, contains the same words, but in greater numbers, and also has 14 instances of “motherfucker.” And so on. The site also provides for each book a play-by-play or page-by-page transcript of the more salacious passages. Those passages are provided so that militants can read them for effect at school board meetings or quote them in book challenges, the way they are quoted in Flagler County schools, saving the challenges the bother of acquiring, cracking or analyzing the books for themselves.
Unlike the Flagler County Library, which requires anyone who challenges a book not only to read the book, but to defend the challenge in front of the Library Board of Trustees–answering questions and testing the authenticity of the challenger’s claims–Flagler schools make no such requirements. So challenges can be cribbed from copycat sites or, more accurately, faked.
And in fact, as with Terri McDonald’s challenge of Crank, filed on Oct. 13–to take one example–McDonald appears not to have even read the book report so much as simply recopied the page numbers of the objectionable passages, while cutting and pasting the summary that appears at the beginning of the book report: “This book contains explicit excerpts involving sexual intercourse and sexual battery involving minors and explicit excerpts sensationalizing illegal drug use.” Unlike Rambow, who at least gave credit, nowhere does McDonald cite the source of her words, or note that the words aren’t hers. The challenges themselves are works of plagiarism.
The Flagler district challenge form asks questions of the person challenging the book. But again and again, McDonald cuts and pastes the same statements.
Rambow does McDonald one better: in two instances, she simply copied an image of the chart of books that the website she pointed to find objectionable, and pasted that image into her email, which she then sent to the district by way of a challenge.
Rambow initially was told by district staff that the challenge was improperly filed, and that it had to be done according to district procedure, using the district’s challenge forms. That’s what then prompted McDonald to file the serial challenges to the same book titles that were on Rambow’s list, one after the other. But that was more of a formality. The district was ahead of her, cowering to the challenges in waiting.
There is no question that the banning of the books that followed, starting in August and before the formal convening of media specialist committees, was a direct result of the Rambow list and what followed–and that the books were, in fact, banned, not merely “removed’ as part of a weeding process. The titles of books removed are identical to those on Rambow’s list, communications between district staff and the challengers reveal. (“It is my understanding that you are wanting these books removed from the inventory,” Gavin, the school board attorney, had written Rambow after Rambow filed her original list. “This requires the process to be followed so we can be in compliance with state law.”)
The day after one of McDonald’s challenges, Indian Trails Middle School principal Ryan Andrews wrote Teri McDonald, and informed her that the book had been removed over the summer. Same story with Thirteen Reasons Why, the Jay Asher book (seven asses, one “dick,” one “piss” and one “shit,” plus the line, “I’m sorry. Is this getting too graphic for some of you? Too bad.”) It was removed over the summer. Andrews described it as “pulled from circulation.”
Same story with Lucky, which was pulled from the shelves at Flagler Palm Coast High School and Matanzas High School, according to Oct. 14 emails by Bobby Bossardet and Kristin Bozeman, the schools’ principal (writing to McDonald). Same story with Push, pulled from both FPC and Matanzas, and A Court of Mist and Fury, removed from FPC shelves. Tilt was challenged at Matanzas, but it had never been there, that school’s principal told McDonald. The Upside of Unrequited was removed from Buddy Taylor Middle School shelves.
The Haters, the book by Jesse Andrews (67 instances of “fuck”), was banned after a committee review at FPC.
In a follow-up email last week, Bossardet left no doubt when writing McDonald why the books had been removed: they “do not meet our currenc circulation criteria [and] will be pulled from circulation (or were previously pulled earlier this year), and are no longer available for students at Flagler Palm Coast High School.”
Just one book survived the Oct. 26 committee meeting: Sold, the Patricia McCormick book about the human trafficking of a minor girl sold into slavery. “The committee determined this resource is appropriate for use and should be retained as a resource available to teachers and students in our media centers. We do understand that not all books are appropriate for all students,” Bossardet wrote McDonald in a memo on Oct. 28.
As of that day, there were still many titles awaiting “review” by school committees: The Nowhere Girls, The Upside of Unrequited, Crank, The Truth About Alice, Last Night and the Telegraph Club, The Black Flamingo, Damsel, What Girls Are Made Of and Breathless. The challengers’ successes so far were likely either to embolden the group to file yet more challenges, assuming they can find ready-made lists of books to ban, or to push further into the banning process itself.
Lashakia Moore, the district’s assistant superintendent who oversees libraries and the reconsideration committee, extended an invitation to Rambow–and not just Rambow–to join the district committee: “will you please share with me the names and contact information for anyone from your organization that would like to serve on the reconsideration committee,” Moore wrote Rambow on Oct. 17.
Rambow immediately sent in her own name and those of Terri McDonald and Chanel Channing, soon adding Lackey, her own daughter, Robyn Rambow, and Kathy Barnett to the list. By October 24, Rambow had gotten antsy, itching for a committee meeting: “I still haven’t heard back from you as to when the committee meeting is scheduled for,” she wrote Moore. “I find it very disheartening that neither you or Mr Reeves will communicate with me.”
Moore replied the next day that she’d be in touch. By the time this article initially published, Moore had not reply to a series of questions a reporter sent her today.