The Flagler County school district is rolling out a new library-book circulation policy that balances complete freedom of access, browsing and borrowing privileges for students and parents who wish it, with more restrictive measures that apply only to students and parents who choose that route. There will be no blanket bans, but parents will have the right to ban books for their own children, even on a broad scale.
The policy has drawn approbative attention from the Legislature, from the governor’s office and from other school districts. Other districts are now modeling their own policies after Flagler’s as they try to pre-empt book-banning controversies and comply with new state edicts giving parents more say in restricting access–without jeopardizing the mission of open libraries, open stacks and open minds.
The policy is the work of Lashakia Moore, the director of teaching and learning, in conjunction with the district’s media specialists, a corps of professionals who usually operate in the background, but who customarily have been–for the most part–fierce defenders and advocates of students’ right of access to books and other materials. The policy was first reported here when it was still a work in progress in mid-January. It has not substantially changed since then.
Moore rolled out the policy that will go in effect early next month in an appearance before the Flagler County School Board Tuesday. Moore, formerly the principal at Rymfire Elementary, zoomed in to the meeting from Orlando, where she was chaperoning as a parent at the state Future Problem Solvers competition. Half the students attending the competition from around the state are from Flagler County, including dozens from Indian Trails Middle School and Rymfire Elementary. Moore updated the board on the recent rewriting of the media centers’ handbook and training for media specialists, and the rollout of the new library circulation choices for parents.
Here’s how it works. Some books judged by the library itself require parental permission to check out, though that only applies to, say, a middle school student requesting a book from a high school library. It’s not a new rule. It remains in effect. There are no such requirements for high school students accessing their high school library’s holdings.
Beyond that, Level One circulation is open access: students select books at their discretion. Parents assume their children can make their own decisions, and either don’t want to meddle or, just as importantly, don’t think it’s appropriate for them to meddle. They trust that librarians have stocked the library with books that presumably will broaden children’s minds or answer their needs if they’re working on particular projects. For all the controversies over book-banning, open access is, in fact, by far the most commonly followed option.
Level Two gives parents or guardians the option to provide a list of up to five titles that their child may not check out–but no more than five. Outside of those five titles, the student’s access defaults to Level One.
Level Three essentially closes open-stack borrowing privileges to a student and defaults to a list of titles approved by the parent. In other words parents will have the option to go through the library’s entire holdings, determine what they will allow their child to borrow, banning the rest–but only for their child. The ban obviously has no effect on other students’ wish to borrow the book. The prohibition also does not apply to what a student may do at the library itself, since media specialists will not be hovering over every student like brown-shirted Reading Police: no library is about to go Fahrenheit 451 on its students.
“I want to be extremely clear about this parent choice,” Moore said. “The parent choice does not negate our responsibilities as media specialists or educators to ensure that our materials and our media centers align with our statute as well as our board policy. However, this is an additional provision that is being made to families so that families can work with your child in order to have a little bit more autonomy over media selection.”
More pragmatically, “if a parent wants to stay at Level One, there’s nothing that they need to do,” Moore said. “Your child’s access would not change. However, if a parent wanted to move to Level Two or Level Three, they would go to our district website, they would submit a request. The request would then be sent to the administrator and the media specialist and the media specialist will follow up with a meeting with a parent in order to ensure that the child is set up on the appropriate level.”
School Board member Jill Woolbright, who with fellow-Board member Janet McDonald has called for banning books, filed a criminal complaint against the superintendent for allowing a certain book to circulate, and continues to advocate for restricted access to library books, did not want Level One to be a “default,” if other parents happened not to be aware of their choices. She wanted to “make that part of our yearly paperwork so that parents would be making a choice whether to do level one, two or three rather than a default.”
Moore said the initial intention is to push out the new policy through the website, through the families’ web-based school portal, and through social media, keeping all families at Level One until families decide otherwise. The administration will study the need for a different process as the new school year begins. “But I think right now with sustainability and us just rolling out this process, it is important that we work the opposite way,” Moore said, “rather than to have them select a level.”
Woolbright pressed on, wanting parents to actually opt into Level One (“just have them sign that they don’t need a change”) which amounts to doing to the majority of parents and students exactly what she claims not to want for some–default them away from Level One. But that would be turning current school policy on its head: it would require parents to ask for open access, when open access is the default setting. Woolbright did not say what she intended to happen to those who would not sign such a form. She also wanted to make sure book banning that would extend to all students was still possible: “Where parents can still have objection to books, there’s still processes in place for them to bring if they want to question a book or they’re concerned about a book and whether it should be available for any child?” Woolbright asked.
What’s still in place, and that the new procedure or policy does not change, is the challenge process: a book may be challenged, first at the school level, then at the district level, and the superintendent’s decision may then be appealed to the school board. “This does not have any impact on our reconsideration process,” Moore said.
“Because I think there’s concern that there’s more books that are questionable and they’re afraid that–the fear of the public is that it’ll get covered up with this new process, like this takes care of it,” Woolbright said. She was referring mostly to continuing allegations by Woolbright herself and by a very small minority of individuals (some of whom, like Woolbright, have no children in schools) that some books shouldn’t be on the shelves at all. For example, Woolbright repeated the strategy she adopted when seeking to ban “All Boys Aren’t Blue last year, after watching a news clip about it in another district.
On Feb. 13, Woolbright wrote Superintendent Mittelstadt again, forwarding her a Tampa Bay Times news video showing a parent complain about certain books to the Hillsborough County School Board, referring to “The Bluest Eyes,” by the Nobel prize-winner Toni Morrison, “then the discovery of so many books. The count increases daily,” the parent is seen telling the board, before rattling off the usual obsessions decontextualized from numerous literary and well-regarded works. Woolbright asked the superintendent, vaguely, “Is this in our schools? Hope not.” It’s not clear what she was referring to, since the parent in the video at one point refers to “thousands” of books. “We need to vet the books we already have before parents storm the boardroom,” Woolbright threatened.
Yet she did not appear to be opposed to the Moore procedure. She said she was contacted by the governor’s office to discuss Flagler’s library policy, and she was “proud” to share the proposed levels, as presented by Moore.
McDonald joined in, again, as she had in recent months, pressing for a review of all titles to determine their appropriateness–and again bashing “award granting organizations” for the kind of books they recognize. “There are very liberal applications of that because it’s a sales pitch,” she said, arguing that parents should know why a book was awarded an award: “That should be something that parents are aware of as well, what an award means by a certain organization and why it was given, whether it’s a marketing issue or whether it’s true literature,” McDonald said.
Board member Colleen Conklin shared the new policy with Sen. Travis Hutson and Rep. Paul Renner, who represent Flagler at the Legislature, and said the policy has been making the rounds of other districts, as a guide, in light of the Legislature’s own more restrictive approach through new law to library materials. “So you’ve really left your mark on this and it’s been very well thought out,” Conklin told Moore. “And I think it creates a win win, really for everybody.”
Moore agreed. She said the policy was ready to rollout earlier, but because the district started getting requests from other districts to help them, Flagler slowed down and addressed those requests. “So I’m extremely proud of the work that our media specialists have done and will continue to do as we roll this out,” Moore said.
Board member Cheryl Massaro, who was fully supportive of the new procedures, wants to ensure that parents who don’t have access to the web have their own avenues of accessing the new procedures. She also wanted to ensure that students have the right to challenge their own parents’ prohibitions on certain titles. Moore said that would have to be done in the home. “That’s an area that we haven’t addressed,” she said.
“So there isn’t a student appeal process?” Massaro asked. There is not.
Conklin cautioned that all may not be done, considering new legislation. That legislation requires a “deep dive,” she said, because “it could have a chilling effect on our library and media and instructional materials that we have in our schools.”