After 2 failed challenges, Hillsborough school board to rule on ‘This Book Is Gay’

The Hillsborough County School Board can add another task to its busy schedule: Issuing a final ruling on the suitability of “This Book Is Gay.”

The case, which recently attracted the attention of Florida House Speaker Paul Renner, centers around a nonfiction book in the Pierce Middle School media center about topics of interest to young people in the LGBTQ community.

Parent Stephanie Ascroft, who filed the series of challenges, does not have a child at Pierce. The oldest of her three children is in kindergarten.

Ascroft said she heard about the book during a televised school board meeting, where members of the Moms For Liberty organization frequently read explicit passages from school library books to make their point that the selection process is inadequate.

Ascroft said she read author Juno Dawson’s entire book, as is required in the challenge process.

“I think the book as a whole is a positive thing,” she said. “It helps kids who are exploring and questioning. It helps them feel more accepted and not alone.”

But she said two chapters alarmed her.

One of them, titled “Where to Meet People Like You,” instructs readers in how to use apps such as Grindr to find partners. Although there are pages explaining precautions young people should take to avoid exploitation, Ascroft said, “To me, that’s just dangerous. It’s a safety issue at that point.”

She also found that another chapter, “The Ins and Outs of Gay Sex,” is too graphic in its depictions of sex acts.

Following her initial challenge, a committee at Pierce voted to keep “This Book Is Gay” on the shelves. The next step was a districtwide committee, which in February voted 8-3 in favor of keeping it.

“Multiple educator committee members shared examples of how students in middle schools hear and learn about the concepts addressed in the material online, through media, and from classmates,” said a district report about the process. It said materials like “This Book Is Gay” don’t introduce students to the concept, but serve as a non-fiction alternative to classmates and the internet that can clarify sometimes dangerous misconceptions.

One committee member “disagreed and opined that the material was not age suitable for the youngest in middle school audiences,” the report said. Two of the dissenting members wanted to reverse the school committee’s decision. The third wanted to return the matter to the school committee.

The school board will now hear the matter at one of its regular hearings, which typically are scheduled at 4 p.m. on Tuesdays. No date has been set.

The volatile issue of book challenges comes up occasionally for discussion at board meetings, with some members calling for a workshop to focus on it more intently. Unlike some other Florida districts, Hillsborough has not allowed the 2022 Florida Parental Rights in Education Act to be a catalyst for banning books with adult-themed material.

Ascroft on Friday insisted that her actions are not politically motivated.

“I‘m very protective of my children and what they are exposed to, and I have to be forward thinking for them,” she said. “But it seems like there’s been a very slippery slope in what we allow our children to be exposed to.”