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Pinellas County School Board revises book challenge policy

A screenshot of a meeting with the words "Pinellas County Schools Public Comments, Agenda Items, Sept. 26, 2023" at the bottom. People sit with their backs to the camera in the foreground, more people sit behind a dais in the back.
Pinellas County
Pinellas County School Board members discussed new policy changes to their book challenge process during the September 26 meeting.

Due to what many school officials are calling vague and expansive language, districts across the state are wrestling with how to comply with various education laws.

School districts across the state continue to revise their book challenge policies as they wait for more guidance from the Florida Department of Education (FLDOE).

Pinellas County school board officials are the latest to voice confusion over the changing rules.

At a Tuesday meeting, board members discussed revisions to their book challenge process.

A proposed change would mean a district-wide committee, rather than school-level ones, will make decisions to remove or restrict certain materials. Their decision would apply county-wide.

District 7 Board Member Caprice Edmond said she's worried that this could override previous school level committee decisions.

"The changes in the policies do not indicate that past decisions made by school-based review committees will be upheld," said Edmond. "It also reduces the ability for parents and school community to decide on the issue impacting their school/students other than providing public comment."

Vice Chair Laura Hine pushed back, saying that the District Instructional Materials Review Committee will simplify the process, but keep officials from individual schools in the process.

"This spring [was] really the first time in recent history we've managed objections, and I attended some of them at that school level, and it was difficult and burdensome," said Hine.

According to the new policy, the committee will be chaired by a trained district administrator and include the school's executive director of education; two instructional staff members; a district content specialist or coordinator for library media; and three parents of students who will have access to the material, a stipulation of House Bill 1069.

"The structure and process of the district Instructional Materials Review Committee will remain constant, but the people on the committee will change based on their expertise on the grade level and subject of the objected material," said Director of Strategic Planning and Policy Leanna Ison.

Another policy change allows the public to speak to the objection for three minutes each at the committee review.

Those proposed policies differ from that of Hillsborough County Public Schools, which utilizes school-level reviews, and does not allow public comments at either the school review or district-level appeal.

Expansive laws baffle school officials

Due to what many school officials are calling vague and expansive language, districts across Florida are wrestling with how to comply with various laws governing what books and instructional materials are allowed in schools — as well as the process to challenge them.

HB 1069, passed in July, expanded on the "Parental Rights in Education" bill known by opponents as "Don't Say Gay." The most recent guidance came from a State Board of Education meeting in August.

In Charlotte County, the district ordered the removal of all books and material containing LBGTQ+ charactersand themes in an attempt to comply with state laws, before pulling back from the sweeping decision.

Pinellas school officials said they're expecting more instruction from the state board this fall.

Until then, school board members said they feel like they're left in the lurch.

"When the policy was originally brought forward, it remains subjective," said Edmond. "The ability for inconsistent application remains and clear guidance has not been provided by the state."

At a Sept. 19 board workshop, a district official acknowledged that rulings on school materials could differ from district to district "based upon their local communities and their sensibilities."

Speaking at Tuesday's meeting, Hine said that she has confidence in their policies and administrative procedures and that decisions are made by licensed and trained teachers and librarians, as well as with input from parents.

"We do have to prevent any self-censorship by our teachers," said Hine. "Let them [teachers] know that you trust them and value them to select appropriate, strong, diverse materials for our students."

State legislation creates tough climate for teachers, students

However, community members and educators said it's difficult to place trust in the school district, when so much of the law and policies remain up to interpretation.

A number of teachers from the Pinellas County Teacher's Association spoke about what they say are unclear guidelines on classroom instruction and feeling hamstrung by erring on the side of caution.

Parents talked about how books they had no objections to were taken out of school libraries and classrooms.

The school district recently removed five books after hearing residents read passages aloud at an August meeting, the Tampa Bay Times reported. The district reviewed those books without receiving formal complaints.

The formal challenge process is supposed to begin when a parent or county resident submits an objection form.

Courtney Burt spoke about how her child began their gender transition process two years before the legislature passed HB 1557, the original "Parental Rights in Education" bill that bars instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity.

She described how those policies created a hostile environment that eventually pushed her child out of public school.

"Much of the bullying my child endured resulted from several school staff refusing to use their chosen name that my child pleaded or I pleaded for. So how were my rights validated?" said Burt.

Pinellas County resident Steve Freeman called on the district to clarify their rules and policies so that students can learn in a supportive environment.

"Stop the banning of books and inclusive literature, provide thoughtful, thorough and clear procedures for how to challenge materials and resources without uplifting bigotry," said Freeman. "Parental rights are important, but I believe student rights triumph."

The final reading and public comment of the Pinellas County book challenge policy changes will take place November 14 at the district building in Largo.

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