‘We know who the radicals are’: What people think about Florida teachers’ hidden bookshelves

8/12/21 - A recent surge in COVID-19 infections has caused the Manatee County School District to close several classrooms.

8/12/21 – A recent surge in COVID-19 infections has caused the Manatee County School District to close several classrooms.

ttompkins@bradenton.com

Florida’s Manatee County was in the national spotlight this week as photos of covered classroom shelves went viral on social media.

The dispute was resolved at a meeting of the school board on Tuesday. About 50 people attended. Three mothers spoke in support of the school district’s actions in response to Florida’s new law, and a library media expert voiced disapproval.

“To the teachers who protested so strongly, thank you. Now we know who some of the activists were,” the parent said. Paula Lohnes said during public comment.

law, HB 1467, backed by Gov. Ron DeSantis to advance parental rights in Florida classrooms. It targets books that contain “biased or indoctrinating,” “pornographic” and “harmful to minors.” It requires that all reading materials in classrooms and libraries be approved by each school district.

So far, Manatee County appears to be the only district where some schools immediately remove or block access to books until they are reviewed and added to a district-wide database called Destiny.

There also appeared to be confusion in the way principals and teachers interpreted on Tuesday district memo.

“As far as I know, there isn’t any book police going school-to-school and classroom-to-classroom,” said Manatee School Board President Chad Choate. “Just don’t let your books go out now until they’ve all been vetted.

“I don’t think we need to create more problems by throwing out sheets and flipping through books,” Choate added. “We’re going to get through this. It’s going to take some time.”

Others defended teachers’ response to the new rules.

“The message being spread is not consistent in every school,” said Patricia Barber, president of the county’s teachers’ union. “Whether you like it or not, some principals’ interpretation of ‘not allowing students into your classroom library until they’ve been vetted’ is to cover them up, box them up or do anything to prevent your students from accessing it.”

On Tuesday, district officials still had no clear consensus on how teachers should limit the use of uncensored books.

“Are we telling them to turn the blanket on or off?” asked school board member Mary Foreman.

“I’m not going to give any of these instructions. If it’s approved by the school district or Destiny, it’s given to the student right away,” said Laurie Breslin, executive director of curriculum for the county school district.

“It’s taking forever”

In Manatee County on Florida’s Gulf Coast, the district relies heavily on the strength of volunteers to review books and place approved titles back on classroom shelves.

“It’s going to take forever,” said board member Mary Foreman. “I’ve been through this process at a Title 1 school for the past two days. I’ve done four classrooms.”

Books in teachers’ classroom libraries must be checked individually against the list of approved books recorded in the district’s system, Breslin said.

“One thing we can’t do is stop teachers from paying attention to their students,” Breslin said. The district turned to community volunteers to come into classrooms and start checking books, she explained.

Books not on the approved list must be added to the spreadsheet for further consideration by each school’s Certified Media Specialist.

Ultimately, each school’s media specialist and principal will be responsible for determining which books are allowed to remain, Breslin said.

Superintendent Cynthia Saunders said Tuesday that if the school disagrees with whether a book is appropriate, the decision will go to the school board for a final decision.

The process has yet to be figured out, and further discussions are planned for Friday at a school board workshop.

School board member Gina Messenger said she supports the law but is concerned parents at Title I schools may not have more time to volunteer or read books outside of school.

“I’m concerned about this stand we have now, and how that’s going to affect certain segments of our population,” the Messenger said.

It also takes up to 10 days for school districts to conduct background checks on volunteers before they can enter schools, adding another delay to the process, Breslin said.

In the meantime, students can still access books at the school’s media centre, which have gone through the verification process last year.

State education officials issued guidance in December explaining that the law also applies to classroom libraries, which Manatee County schools had not previously included in the book review process.

Other school board members expressed support for the measure.

“I’m going to use the term ‘media ethics.’ When we talk about our students, there has to be ethics,” said school board member Cindy Spray.

“Libraries are gardens that have been weeded, so to speak, and now we’re going to go into classrooms and try to weed those gardens,” said school board member Richard Tatem.

“Huge” Anxiety

Critics of the new law say it is censorship and serves political ends.

The Florida Freedom to Read Project, an advocacy group founded by parents, said the law “allows conservatives to cull books and classroom materials they deem objectionable.” in a recent post.

Manatee County recently sent school leaders a memo saying failure to comply with the new rules could result in third-degree felony charges.

“It caused a lot of anxiety,” Barber said Tuesday night.

Related reports from the Miami Herald

Ryan Ballogg is a news reporter and features writer for the Bradenton Herald. Since joining the paper in 2018, he has won awards for feature, art and environmental writing in the Florida Press Club’s Excellence in Journalism competition. Ryan is a native of Florida and a graduate of the University of South Florida in St. Petersburg.
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