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Hillsborough County School District officials want more state guidance on books and materials

Books on a library shelf
Victoria Crosdale
WUSF Public Media
Hillsborough County Public Schools board members expressed their frustration and confusion over legislation that governs what school materials should be allowed in classrooms and school libraries.

School district board members said state law governing the appropriateness of school instructional materials needs more clarity to be implemented. Additional guidance from the Florida Department of Education is expected on Aug. 23.

During a Tuesday morning workshop, Hillsborough County Public Schools board members expressed their frustration and confusion over legislation that governs what school materials should be allowed in classrooms and school libraries.

At issue was a bill passed in March that expands the Parental Rights in Education law enacted last year — known to critics as "don't say gay."

The new legislation, HB1069, states that material that is deemed pornographic, depicts sexual conduct outside of an educational setting or is not suited to students needs and age level, can be challenged and removed from the classroom or libraries.

The law also mandates that each school adopt a policy that outlines the challenge process for such materials.

However, board members said that the criteria used to determine the appropriateness of books and other school materials is vague and subjective.

"We have two attorneys here, we have some really highly educated people. And there's a lot of confusion still going on," board chair Nadia Combs said during the two-hour workshop.

Throughout the discussion, board members questioned what materials would be considered pornographic or not age-appropriate.

"None of us wants pornography. I think that we can collectively agree on that," said District 2 board member Stacy Hahn. "Where I disagree is I think we may already have it in our schools, but it has not been reviewed based on state laws."

What is the challenge process?

Hillsborough's school district policy states that parents or community members can challenge books and other materials by first sharing their concerns with the school's library media specialist, who is trained to comply with the requirements outlined in state law.

If the issue isn't resolved, the complainant can fill out a Request for Reconsideration form, which the district has made available on its website. The state plans to release their objection form on Aug. 23.

An Educational Media Materials Committee, composed of school staff and parents, is then required to review the materials in question in its entirety by consulting "professional reviews and academic resources" to determine if the material should be removed.

Appeals can be brought to the district and then to the commissioner of education, who will appoint a special magistrate if the complainant is not satisfied with the committee's decision.

The bill requires that committee meetings to resolve objections must be posted publicly and open to the public.

Confusion on law remains

Combs, as well as her colleagues, pointed out that, unless the state provides more clarity, the criteria used to profile books can be open to interpretation.

"Everyone has different opinions, everyone's interpreting the law differently," said Combs. "So I would hope that the Department of Education will give us a list of books or give us clarification. Because this type of confusion is just not good for all districts, and is not good for the state of Florida either."

Combs said additional instruction from the Department of Education is expected on Aug. 23. Until then, the district will rely on the objection process they have in place.

"Will we have to change that process? I don't know, let's see," said Combs.

In the last two years, Hillsborough schools has faced two challenges — one of which resulted in the removal of nonfiction book "This Book is Gay" from county middle schools. The book is still available in high schools.

Other school boards across the state are facing lawsuits challenging the removal of books. A lawsuit filed in Escambia County alleges that school officials acted in defiance of existing policies and a committee's recommendations when they removed books, many of which address issues of racism and LGBTQ relationships.

"We have a process and we continue with that process. We don't just start making rules and start giving opinions because that is where we get in trouble with the law," said Combs.

Jessica Vaughn, District 3 representative, asked what would happen if parents disagreed on the challenge of certain books.

"Whose rights will be respected?" Vaughn asked. "Do they have a right to then challenge the challenge itself?"

School district attorney Jeff Gibson responded that more clarification on that process will be provided on Aug. 23.

Kimberly DeFusco, supervisor for library and media services for grades 6-12, said media specialists will be reviewing any incoming books and the existing school collection throughout the year.

As WUSF's general assignment reporter, I cover a variety of topics across the greater Tampa Bay region.