Until two years ago, book challenges in Flagler County schools were unheard of. It’s now the norm. Every time Flagler County’s media specialists hold their regular meetings with Lashakia Moore, the assistant superintendent who oversees libraries and curriculum materials, there’s an agenda item on book challenges.
Flagler Palm Coast High School, Matanzas High School, Indian Trails Middle School and Buddy Taylor Middle School have reviewing committees for books being challenged, generally meeting monthly. The meetings are public, and are beginning to draw an audience. The district has its own committee, and may eventually have more than one to accommodate the volume of titles being challenged, though who is on that committee, how individuals are appointed and when it meets remains unclear. It hasn’t met this year.
But gray areas of uncertainty, anxiety, subjectivity and a gaping lack of state direction are shading the new regime of serial book challenges and book bans.
That new regime resulted from a legislative emphasis on “parental rights” and “anti-woke” materials that has given authority to anyone–not just parents–to challenge books and curricular material in schools, that has led to the removal of numerous titles from school libraries and classrooms across the state, that has required the establishment of standing school-based and district-based review committees, and that routinely occupies dozens of hours a month for those who serve on the committees, overworked media specialists and teachers among them. (See: “Flagler Schools Have Been Quietly Banning or ‘Removing’ Many Books Since Summer in Bow to ‘Moms for Liberty’.”)
Moore in a long interview defended Flagler’s approach, saying that while anyone can challenge titles, it’s a misconception to assume that books are being banned or removed left and right, or that every book under challenge will be removed: in at least four cases so far, challenges have been rebuffed and the titles kept (including, for example, Patricia McCormick’s Sold and Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, a mawkish novelization of life under the Taliban but a world bestseller.
Nor have the challenges made a book-lending policy Moore wrote moot. That policy gives parents the right to prevent their child from borrowing certain books. But individual parents have to actively choose what level of access they want to permit their child. Most parents choose open access. The policy, in Moore’s view, has given the district more leverage to keep book on shelves that would otherwise be challenged.
“What we heard consistently was people wanted choice,” Moore said. “We knew that we would still have challenges. But now we do have an added layer that we can say: When we say no, we want to keep this resource, we can empower our families to say, here, you don’t want your child to read this book.” The policy can be enacted to keep that specific child from borrowing that specific book, even as it remains accessible to everyone else.
That may explain why, while other districts are seeing reams of books being challenged, the number of titles challenged in Flagler has remained relatively limited.
The district posts on its website the list of books being challenged. The list has been static for weeks. There were 42 requests for reconsideration submitted this year. Many of those were duplicates. The number of titles challenged was 22. Six of those titles were “weeded” before the start of the school year. That’s the word the district uses. Three were removed–or banned. Two were found to have not been in circulation. Four were judged and kept, one of them part of the adopted curriculum. The rest are “under review.”
In Flagler, as with so much regarding the handling of books under the new regime, there is some vagueness when it comes to books under challenge–do they stay on shelves? Are they removed pending a decision? It’s not clear. The several books under review will not all be judged until the end of the school year, considering the time it takes to go through each process. “It really depends on the book and our knowledge of the book and what resource or what content is being challenged in the book,” Moore said. Some books will stay on the shelves, based on media specialists’ knowledge of their content. Others, not: “Let’s keep this out of circulation until the media specialist has an opportunity to read the book or get some additional information on it.”
Media specialists are familiar with the greater majority of the book on their shelves, but not with all, Moore said. Meanwhile, “weeding” continues.
When the law changed, it meant the district had to identify on its website what materials were challenged. It had to provide the state a list of those challenged titles, and how the district addressed the challenges. It required a publicly accessible, searchable online book-catalogue system for all school libraries. And it enabled any county resident to file challenges.
But laws old or new did not require an accounting of “weeded” books, Moore said. So it’s impossible to know what books were “weeded” in previous years, before library books became an issue. It could have been upward of 10 percent of a library’s collection, Moore said, improbably. “It just depends on how much time they spend going through it,” she said. The 10 percent figure is improbable because school libraries are not voluminous, and anything near 10 percent, year after year, would necessitate a replenishing book-buying budget that is not there. Moore said she would look into lists of “weeded” books that were not part of book challenges.
Remarkably, the criteria used to judge books under review are also not clear, leaving it more to subjectivity than any clear standards. With rare exceptions–the state School Board, for example, explicitly banned use of The 1619 Project in schools–neither the pre-“parental rights” law or new law, nor state School Board directives, set out specifically what materials are allowed, and what materials are not.
“The Florida Department of Education will give us guidance of what is age appropriate when it comes to gender identity and sexual orientation,”Moore said. “The department will provide us training that all of our media specialists must go through by June of 2023.” That directive is to be issued by January. “We’re really waiting on their direction as to if they will clarify more of what is allowed and what is not allowed or what is age appropriate and what is not.” media specialists, Moore said, “are anxious to see what that training looks like. I think we all are.”
Meanwhile, likely for the same reasons Rooke mentioned about the anti-woke law, a lot of media specialists and teachers who had their own classroom book stacks have taken the conservative approach. Rather than risk leaving a contentious title on a shelf, they’ve removed it, or “weeded” it, or placed it under review, a form of pre-emptive self-censorship that mostly never enters the formal review process and remains out of view of the public.
Scott Rooke serves on the Brevard County school district’s district-wide committee that reviews challenged books. (The district as a whole has faced 42 challenges since spring, not counting challenges based at any of its 80-some schools.) He was the guest speaker Wednesday evening at a talk presented at the public library by the local chapter of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. He said it’s not just book challenges that are reducing the number of titles on school shelves, but a state of fear induced by such things as the new “anti-woke” law that makes teaching certain concepts about race, or any concepts that make students anxious or uncomfortable, a risk for teachers.
“Teachers are being threatened with revocation or suspension of their teaching certificates if they don’t follow the new laws,” Rooke said. “So you’re creating a state of fear among the staff. And so Florida has been proclaimed as being the freest state in America. But what does that mean?” He added: “Freedom doesn’t mean that you get to define what my kid reads. You have the freedom to opt out of books and even opt into books that require permission. But you do not get to say that your moral principles are superior to mine. That’s the opposite of freedom. That’s the opposite of what I spent over 25 years in the military to protect.”
But Rooke is also an illustration of the politization of school boards: Rooke expects that he will soon be removed from the book reviewing committee since the board’s make-up changed after the last election.
He also noted a shift in local policy: all books under challenge are now automatically removed, pending completion of the review. With that change, “We’ve just empowered those who want to remove books,” he said. Even if the challenge takes half a year to be resolved, the book will not be accessible during that time.
The number of books under challenge in Flagler is half the number in Brevard, and a fraction of the list you’d find on, say, the Clay County school district’s “reconsideration” page: as of today, that district was listing 102 titles being reconsidered, 54 of which have been banned so far. The district doesn’t use that word. It lists the banned books as “Deselected/Weeded.”
There’s no question that the books have been banned because of their subject matter. Most deal with issues of race, gender, sexuality and violence toward women or from police. Startlingly, the books banned include such classics as James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, one of the most influential books of the civil rights era, Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eyes, Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, and Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, which established the reputation of its author, now regularly short-listed for the Nobel Prize.
But of the books “weeded” or removed in Flagler, there’s also no question that many were removed because of their controversial content, despite artistic value–including Ellen Hopkins’s Crank, Becky Albertalli’s The Upside of Unrequited, and Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why.
Only four people have submitted requests for reconsideration in Flagler. Only one has been confirmed to have a child in the school district. Until last year, the other individuals could not have filed a challenge since they had no child in school–they had no standing. The law changed, enabling anyone in the county to file such challenges.
Parents have always had the ability and authority to file book challenges in any public school in Florida. In Flagler as in Brevard, a policy spelled out the process. In Flagler as in Brevard, “nobody was using it,” Rooke said. “But it’s only recently that’s been weaponized to limit education for a whitewashed history.”
Meanwhile, media specialists in Flagler are making do within shades of gray.
“We are also looking at what’s happening around our county around around the country and saying, okay, I have that material. Let me review that material and look at it against our selection process, just like we’ve done in the past,” Moore said. That involves weeding: are certain titles still appropriate, are some titles outdated, or some–as was the case with one memoir–found to be inaccurate? Depending on the answer, a book will either stay or go.
The Flagler school district also still does not have a process by which a parent–or anyone–may file a counter-challenge, either to a book that’s been banned or removed, or on behalf of a book that the resident believes should be on library shelves, but isn’t.
Until summer, much of the debate over books was dominated by pressure groups looking to remove certain books, such as the vigilante organization that goes by Moms for Liberty, and that won Gov. Ron DeSantis’s affection. In Flagler, that started to change in fall as residents more interested in academic freedom and open stacks began organizing and building their own pressure points to compel the district to include their voices on reviewing committees. Moore said she’s hearing–and welcoming–the broader discussion, which will be reflected in the district committees. Rooke’s appearance at the library event Tuesday was part of that movement.
“Elected officials need to hear from all constituents. We want to make sure that they hear from everyone, from the right or the left, in the middle, not just those that are the loudest, screaming from the fringes,” Rooke said. “And it’s not just in politics. There are plenty of religious organizations that spew the same hate and discourse while we sit idly by. We need to speak up on those, too.”
Disclosure: Rabbi Merrill Shapiro, whose organization sponsored the Scott Rooke talk, also chairs the FlaglerLive board of directors. Shapiro did not consult with, nor was interviewed by, FlaglerLive at any point before this article appeared. The event was organized by Sheila Zinkerman, whose only contact with FlaglerLive was to have the event noticed on the site’s community calendar of events.