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Document shows Manatee teachers were told to 'remove or cover' classroom libraries

a row of books on a bookshelf, among a bunch of other books in a row on top of it.
Victoria Crosdale
WUSF Public Media
H.B.1467, which was implemented last year, says appropriate reading materials have to be reviewed and approved by an employee with a media specialist certificate.

It comes as photos emerged of teachers covering bookcases with blankets to prevent getting in trouble.

The Manatee County School District is helping lead a statewide effort to comply with a new law requiring all library and classroom books be approved by certified media specialists.

During a Tuesday school board meeting, officials got clarification on the process, as pictures emerged of teachers there covering bookcases with blankets to prevent getting in trouble.

School district officials noted they didn’t direct teachers to hide their classroom books from students.

“Did anybody say ban all the books, remove all the books, cover every book? No,” said Superintendent Cynthia Saunders. “We said we need to have a procedure to make sure that you do not have any books on your shelves that have not been properly vetted or allowable."

However, a document from the district obtained by WUSF News shows that it did direct all secondary schools to “remove or cover all classroom libraries until all materials can be reviewed to ensure we are meeting rule 6A-7.0713 as identified in the FDOE Library Media Training.”

A district spokesperson confirmed to WUSF News that the document is real.

The document also outlines how volunteers can check if titles in classroom libraries are appropriate, and the criteria for selection of the library materials.

HB 1467, which was implemented last year, says appropriate reading materials have to be reviewed and approved by an employee with a media specialist certificate.

Teachers found with books in their classrooms that have inappropriate material and haven't been properly vetted could face a third-degree felony.

Although the law was installed in the state last July, additional guidance on classroom-specific libraries wasn’t sent down to the districts until December, according to district officials.

State guidelines say the books have to be free of what is deemed as "pornography," theories that could lead to "student indoctrination," and that they must be appropriate for the student's grade level.

Manatee County School Board Chair Chad Choates says the process will aid teachers overall.

"To me, this is us protecting the teachers, not saying we're banning books,” Choates said. “This is us saying we don't want you to get in trouble. Maybe you didn't know this book was there. Maybe you didn't read this whole book."

The certified media specialists who approve the books must undergo training to know which materials are allowed by state guidelines.

Laurie Breslin, executive director of curriculum for Manatee County District Schools, says with the amount of work that teachers and media specialists already face, it's hard to dedicate a large amount of time making sure every book in their classroom meets state standards.

She says that’s why volunteers are a crucial part of this process.

“The only thing we need to do now is take that additional material, catalog it, and have it reviewed by media specialists,” Breslin said. “That's the massive, heavy list that our volunteers are going to help us lift that.”

The district says it has roughly 500 volunteers to help comb through the materials to ensure they follow state guidelines. They’re still in search of more volunteers as well.

School Board member Mary Foreman said she’s been working on his vetting process herself.

“I've spent the last two days at a Title 1 school … and I have gone through four classes,” Foreman said. “It takes forever. Public, even though if it may take you 10 days to get the OK to come in and volunteer, you need to do it.”

Officials said the volunteers will only be tasked with cataloguing the books, and will not be able to determine if books should be removed themselves.

It was also noted in the Tuesday meeting that teachers can still bring in their own books for personal use, but if they have a book they want to share with students, it would have to go through a similar vetting process — which could include the school’s principal, along with some parental input.

Board member Richard Tatem described this process as removing “weeds in the garden.”

“I don't want to give people the impression, though, that there are weeds in all these classrooms either,” Tatem said. “It's probably not a very pervasive issue. But the weeds are there, and they shouldn't be there, and they should have never gotten there in the first place. And so the public has a right to be concerned.”

Updated: January 26, 2023 at 4:38 PM EST
This story has been updated following WUSF acquiring a document showing that Manatee County School District officials did direct teachers to remove or cover their classroom libraries, despite officials saying otherwise during a Tuesday meeting.
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