Lakshmi’s voice will not be silenced. Not yet, anyway.
The Flagler County School Board this evening voted 3-2 to keep Sold, the novel in verse by Patricia McCormick, on the shelves of Flagler County school’s high school libraries. The novel is written from the perspective of a 13-year-old girl trafficked to a prostitution house in India.
It was the first time in the district’s history that a book challenge had gone all the way to a school board appeal. Three committees–two school-based, one at the district level–all voted to retain Sold.
Superintendent Cathy Mittelstadt, who had to make the final administrative decision (she notoriously banned All Boys Aren’t Blue, the George Johnson book, last year), had also ruled in favor of the book. Mittelstadt said she based her decision on “principle above personal opinion and reason above prejudice.”
Her decision on Sold was appealed by Shannon Rambow, one of three people responsible for all 44 book challenges filed this year, affecting 22 titles.
Board member Colleen Conklin motioned to ratify the superintendent’s decision. Board member Sally Hunt seconded. Conklin, Hunt and Board Chair Cheryl Massaro voted to retain the book. Board members Will Furry and Christy Chong voted to ban it.
Hunt’s position wasn’t clear until the vote. She had said she’d seconded “for discussion” only, raising the possibility that she would vote against keeping the book. She then immediately acknowledged that she had not read the book. She said she chose not to read or watch certain things. She had asked School Board Attorney Kristy Gavin to brief her on it.
“I can tell you things that I read as a teenager I still vividly remember today and I would say those things didn’t help me grow,” Hunt said. “If anything they did disturb me. Now, that’s me.”
Massaro said she was the only school board member with a 15-year-old girl at home. She spoke of the book as an important exploration of a contemporary problem. “It was researched, it was prepared. The sexual context was not pornographic,” she said, describing it as so valuable that she handed a copy to her own 15 year old, telling her: “You need to read this. You need to read this because when you go to college, and you’re out of my control, I want you to understand the power and the influence that people can place on you and take advantage of you.” The book–written in the voice of a girl called Lakshmi–has literary and educational value, she said.
Both student board members also spoke in support of preserving the book–Matanzas High School’s Isabella Tietje and FPC’s Roymara Louissaint–and called book bans a “slippery slope.”
Board member Will Furry said he had read the book, though it was not the sort of book he would have chosen to read. He described the book as “very explicit” and the ” torturing of minor children, and their genitalia”–neither an accurate description of the book. He recalled a victim of human trafficking who shared her story at church, “and she was able to deliver that in a church setting without using any vulgarity or sexuality”–words that, in fact, describe McCormick’s book. But Furry meant to say that the book had used “vulgarity and sexuality.”
The discussion was civil until Furry began repeatedly interrogating the superintendent about whether she would allow a teacher to read the book in its entirety in front of a class, “or would there be disciplinary action.” It was not a fair question: the book is not part of the curriculum. Nor is it in classrooms. But, Mittelstadt said, such a reading would not violate policy.
“Well, that’s your opinion,” Furry said.
Furry kept up the grilling, then said “we’re not talking about banning this book,” saying it would be available outside of schools. He then again made an inaccurate claim–that the book would be accessible by middle school students. Lashakia Moore, the assistant superintendent, said the book would only be available to middle school students with parental consent. (The board’s vote eliminated even that possibility.)
“I read the book also,” Board member Christy Chong said. She kept it brief: “We cannot provide materials that includes sexual excitement, sexual conduct, and that is harmful to minors,” she said, citing state law, and left it at that. [An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported that Chong had not said whether she had read the book.]
“I didn’t think it was as graphic as some folks thought,” Conklin, who read the book (she got a hard copy and listened to it on Audible, she said at the workshop earlier today) said. She was complimentary of the book’s method, research and literary merit. “I trust our teachers to ensure it aligns with the curriculum,” she said. “No teacher would move forward and develop a lesson to that regard.”
“We have a policy in place that if parents find this award-winning book offensive, they can opt their children out of it,” Conklin said. “I’m not opposed to looking at some kind of a warning label for students, because I understand that piece of it, being triggered by something, not knowing exactly what you’re going to read, for those who may have experienced trauma in their lives, not wanting to, to read something like that.” But, she added, the book should not be withdrawn from the reach of those who would want to read it, in a state that, she said, is a hub of human trafficking.
“Stories like this should be told, young people should know that this actually exists. I’m talking about high school age students,” Conklin said. In fact, the Florida Legislature in 2021 made it mandatory for school curriculums to include teaching awareness about human trafficking.
Several people addressed the board, some advocating for books or for Sold, others, including one of the three who filed all the local book challenges, obviously advocating against keeping Sold.
The advocates favoring the book spoke highly of the process, including the committee discussions that led to the votes calling for preserving the title on library shelves. Those opposed criticized the process as laborious and unfair, and one–Sharon Demers, a Republican Party operative–went as far as criticizing what she claimed was a lopsided party representation among those serving in committees. The representation of community members on the committees was drawn randomly from a group of some 70 people who applied. The representation of school staffers is set by policy. Party affiliation does not enter into it.
Former School Board member Jill Woolbright–who had filed a criminal complaint against Mittelstadt and Gavin over All Boys Aren’t Blue when she was still on the board–addressed the board before its discussion on Sold and warned: “There’s going to be a report card of this board sent to the governor’s office.” Woolbright said the governor “looks at these report cards,” and would notice if this board were to retain it, while other districts have not. Woolbright, of course, was misreading the law, which addresses community standards that do provide for different approaches to certain materials, based on geography and local culture.
“I guarantee they’ll be looking at each one of your votes,” Woolbright threatened the board members. Another member of the public ridiculed the “report card,” calling it “embarrassing. Absolutely ludicrous.”
“What we are here and we are all concerned about, all the children in Flagler County, is that we want to do what is morally right,” the resident said. “We set the pace, our children look to us to make correct decisions that will help them and guide them in the future”