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Behind the scenes of Florida’s efforts to purge schools of books deemed improper

Children's books line the shelves at the Alachua County Public Library in Gainesville. A banner with images from the book "The Very Hungry Caterpillar" hangs in the background. The words "Stories Change Us" are printed onto the banner.
Katalina Enriquez
/
Fresh Take Florida
Children's books line the shelves at the Alachua County Public Library in Gainesville.

By state law, books in school libraries must be certified by a media specialist. They must also comply with the Parental Rights in Education Act.

With a scanner like ones used at grocery stores plugged into her computer, Paula Stephens spent her 30-minute planning period scanning two boxes of books from her classroom library.

Those two green boxes had roughly 55 books, and her first-grade classroom at Eisenhower Elementary has about 40 more boxes. Two paper markers labeled “Done” indicate the beginning of this cumbersome process. Hundreds of books organized by reading level remain in bins on her shelves, waiting to be scanned.

“I don’t think people truly understand how many books are in our classroom libraries. Especially when they’re younger, they go through so many books,” Stephens said.

At the end of the year, when state testing looms and class lists need to be made for fall, Pinellas County Schools is requiring its teachers to scan every book in their classroom libraries for school media specialists to review. This process must be completed by May 26 and is required to comply with state law.

Similar scenes are playing out across Florida.

The law, governing instructional materials for classes from kindergarten to 12th grade, passed last year and holds school districts responsible for the content of all materials used in a classroom, made available in a school library or included on a reading list. It requires each book in a school library to be certified by a media specialist and for a list of these materials to be available on school websites. The law took effect in January.

A shelf lined with books at the Alachua County Public Library in Gainesville.
Katalina Enriquez
/
Fresh Take Florida
Children's books line the shelves at the Alachua County Public Library in Gainesville.

Books must also comply with the Parental Rights in Education Act, derided by critics as the “Don’t Say Gay” law. Material that could violate community standards, or be considered instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity, or might describe a person as “inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive” is not allowed. Materials must also be age appropriate for the grade level.

Familiar childhood stories of Froggy, Clifford and Franklin that Stephens brought into her classroom are scanned into a digital database for review by a media specialist and, eventually, access to parents.

Classroom libraries are treated the same as school libraries and under the supervision of the schools’ media specialists. Ginger Brengle, Pinellas Park High School media specialist, said it wasn’t always that way. Initially, they were supposed to serve as facilitators, helping teachers as needed, but now their role is more prominent.

“Overnight, we suddenly became responsible for classroom libraries, the content of those, not just the process, but what was actually in those libraries,” she said.

The district has provided a single USB scanner to each school to conduct this inventory. At Pinellas Park High, that scanner can be passed among the eight to 10 teachers who have classroom libraries, Brengle said. In elementary schools, where every classroom is expected to have a library, a single scanner might not be enough, and iPads can be used instead.

Pinellas teachers will be paid up to three hours at their hourly rate if they perform scanning outside of their contractual hours.

The May 26 deadline is the last day of school for teachers, so books must be scanned before then for media specialists to review, Brengle said.

Other school districts across the state have undergone the same process but started months earlier.

Manatee County Public Schools began its scanning process in January, school board member Chad Choate said.

A shelf lined with books at the Alachua County Public Library in Gainesville.
Katalina Enriquez
/
Fresh Take Florida
Children's books line the shelves at in the Alachua County Public Library in Gainesville.

Meanwhile in Duval County Public Schools, the district deployed scanning and inventorying technology to create an online database in late February, district spokesperson Sonya Duke-Bolden said.

Since the law passed, Duval’s small team of about 54 certified media specialists across all schools has taken on the task of reviewing more than 1.6 million titles.

The law determines which titles are approved. Duval told teachers and media specialists, for example, in K-5 classrooms, books should not reference sexual activity or “kissing beyond a friendly peck,” nor should they reference discrimination or bullying.

Titles on the “not-approved list” in Duval include “The Hate U Give” by Angie Thomas, “Forever” by Judy Blume and 19 others.

Deciding which titles are age appropriate is somewhat of a guessing game, Brengle said. Librarians should consider the plot and the students’ current knowledge and age for each book.

In the last 20 years, she said she had maybe six or seven parents request their child not read a certain book. Typically, teachers provide alternate assignments when a parent disagrees with an assigned title. Now, any title that could potentially be available to a student must be vetted.

Each district must also have a policy in place to review books if they are challenged by a member of the public.

“There are so many other important issues that are impacting their education,” Brengle said. “It’s not the books in my library.”

This story was produced by Fresh Take Florida, a news service of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. The reporter can be reached at emmabehrmann@freshtakeflorida.com. You can donate to support our students here.