BARTOW – Polk County Public Schools Regional Assistant Superintendent John Hill and several of his colleagues spent Tuesday morning going to area middle and high schools to gather 16 books out of media centers after County Citizens Defending Freedom, a conservative political group, complained to Superintendent Frederick Heid that the novels, graphic novels, autobiographies, and sex education books contain pornographic material harmful to children.
Heid sent an email Monday evening to middle and high school principals and media center librarians, stating that a “stakeholder group” is alleging that the books may be in violation of Florida Statute 847.012, which deals with distributing obscene or harmful materials to children.
"While it is not the role of my office to approve/evaluate instructional or resource materials at that level, I do have an obligation to review any allegation that a crime is being or has been committed,” Heid wrote in the email. “It is also my obligation to provide safeguards to protect our employees. The district will be taking the following steps to ensure that we address this issue honestly, fairly, and transparently.”
PCPS spokesman Jason Geary said in an email that the books have been placed “in quarantine” and will not be available for checkout at this time.
“It is important to note that these 16 books have NOT been censored or banned at this time,” Geary said. “They have been removed so a thorough, thoughtful review of their content can take place.”
Geary said the district is following a longstanding protocol when a book is challenged by a parent or community member.
“The process requires the establishment of a review committee consisting of district curriculum staff, literacy/ELA staff, media specialists, parents, and community members,” Geary said. “This process is traditionally done at the individual school level. However, copies of some of the named titles are currently housed in multiple secondary school media centers, so this review will be conducted at the district level. It is important to note that these books will not be available during this period of review.”
Geary said that committee members must read each book in its entirety, and he did not have a timeline of when a final decision would be made.
Among the books in question:
• "It’s Perfectly Normal” by Robie Harris and illustrated by Michael Emberley is a sex education book that uses cartoons to portray people having sex, including straight, gay and lesbian men and women.
• “Two Boys Kissing” by David Levithan depicts the ghosts of gay men, some of whom died of AIDS, watching relationships develop between current-day gay teens and the reactions of their parents.
• “I am Jazz” by Jessica Herthel and Jazz Jennings is an illustrated book about a transgender girl.
Books under fire
Books County Citizens Defending Freedom want banned from Polk County Public Schools:
'The books speak for themselves'
CCDF Executive Director Hannah Petersen sent an email to Heid on Nov. 1 to say CCDF had gotten calls and messages pertaining to 30 books in Polk County Public Schools' libraries.
"I decided to obtain a list of these books from the PCSB and what schools they’re currently in," Petersen said. "I also did a lot of research to make sure the complaints were valid. I was physical (sic) nauseous after my research and knew you would want to be made aware. I only got through about 27 or so."
Jimmy Nelson, a leader of the local chapter of CCDF, said members of the group had read all 16 books listed in their complaint. He declined to say whether he personally has.
Nelson said their group held a meeting with Heid in the last two or three weeks to discuss the content of the books, but had not suggested to the superintendent that they would file a lawsuit if the books were not removed. There is no lawsuit on file with the Polk County Clerk of Courts.
When asked how these 16 books were chosen, Nelson declined to comment. When asked to detail what in each book they objected to, he again declined, saying he didn’t trust the reporter.
“It's pretty evident. The books speak for themselves,” Nelson said. “Anybody who’s aware and takes the time to see what’s available to our kids can see what’s in there.”
When discussing the fact that Khaled Hosseini’s “The Kite Runner” depicts the brutal rape of a boy by a teenaged boy, Nelson was asked if all books containing rape should be banned.
“I’m not going to go into that with you,” Nelson said. He became irritated when it was pointed out that the Bible and William Shakespeare plays contain rape, incest and adultery, and asked if he wanted the Bible or Shakespeare removed, too.
“It makes no difference to the story,” Nelson said. “You want to paint it in that light. You want to twist things.”
When asked where the line was between what was acceptable and what was not, Nelson said, “I don’t know where I can necessarily define that for you. When you know something’s wrong, you know it’s wrong. ... No one has suggested banning Shakespeare. Our issues with these books are clear — Shakespeare's not on the list.”
CCDF recently complained to the Polk County School Board about its reproductive health curriculum, including that the anus is listed in a diagram and a vocabulary sheet describing the reproductive system. In addition, they complained that parents were not listed as the first people students should contact to talk to about sex, pregnancy or sexually transmitted disease issues. The district has now listed parents as a first point of contact for children.
The group also held a large demonstration prior to a School Board meeting in 2021 to protest the district’s mask mandate for students during the pandemic. The School Board eventually removed the mandate from its student dress code, although they have the ability to reinstate a mandate as an emergency measure.
The County Citizens Defending Freedom website states that it is an organization that empowers and equips American citizens to defend their freedoms and liberties at the local level.
“By streamlining and simplifying activism, we support and champion American citizens who want to stand up for their independence,” the website states. A map of local chapters shows there are active organizations in Miami-Dade, Hillsborough, Orange and Polk counties, along with Nueces County, Texas. Half a dozen other “future” chapters are shown in Florida and another dozen in Texas.
Book complaints nationwide
While complaints about and bans on books are nothing new, multiple school districts have dealt with attempts to ban books recently.
According to Newsweek magazine, the Granbury, Texas, Independent School District passed a "book review" order that would allow board members to ban books from district schools without public comment. Granbury, Texas, is a town of roughly 11,000 people southwest of Fort Worth.
The article states that the Texas House General Investigating Committee and the Texas Education Agency have been directed by Gov. Greg Abbott to review all books in the district's schools to prevent children from viewing "pornography or other inappropriate content."
The St. Louis Post Dispatch reported Tuesday that the Wentzville, Missouri, School Board voted 4-3 to remove Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye” from the district’s high school libraries. At least one board member said she was protecting children against obscenity.
Morrison won the Nobel Prize for literature and the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, two of the top literary prizes in the world.
Terry Coney, president of the Lakeland branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said he has a meeting with Heid scheduled for next week to discuss the issue. He called Morrison’s books classics.
“I believe students should have the opportunity to experience classic literature,” Coney said. “That’s why they’re called classics. They have passed the test of time.”
“The Bluest Eye” is about a black girl who thinks she is ugly because she is not white and wants blue eyes. It includes passages about incest and child rape and is on the American Library Association’s annual list of most commonly banned books.
It is one of the two Morrison novels the CCDF is trying to ban, along with "Beloved."
In November, the American Library Association said there has been “a dramatic uptick in book challenges and outright removal” from libraries of books that focus on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, asexual, and agender issues, along with books by Black authors or that document the Black experience or the experiences of other persons of color.
"Falsely claiming that these works are subversive, immoral, or worse, these groups induce elected and non-elected officials to abandon constitutional principles, ignore the rule of law, and disregard individual rights to promote government censorship of library collections,” ALA officials stated in a release. “Some of these groups even resort to intimidation and threats to achieve their ends, targeting the safety and livelihoods of library workers, educators, and board members who have dedicated themselves to public service, to informing our communities, and educating our youth. ALA strongly condemns these acts of censorship and intimidation. We are committed to defending the constitutional rights of all individuals, of all ages, to use the resources and services of libraries. We champion and defend the freedom to speak, the freedom to publish, and the freedom to read, as promised by the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States.”
Stephanie Yocum, who represents PCPS librarians, some of whom contacted her on Tuesday alarmed at the book removal, said the CCDF move is about oppressing minority voices.
“With these titles, these are not taught as classroom novels – they are available for checkout by students,” Yocum said.
Yocum added that Destiny, the computer system the district uses to check out books, allows parents to prohibit any book they don’t want their child to read.
“If you don’t want to have your child read them, you can choose that. Out of one side of their mouth, they want all this parent choice,” Yocum said, referring to CCDF’s demands on masks and sex education. “But with this, they’re choosing for all kids, not just their own.”
She said the books in question depict the graphic mistreatment of people, whether sexually or violently. And she wondered if autobiographies about life during Nazi occupation or in a concentration camp-like "The Diary of Anne Frank" or Elie Wiesel’s "Night" would be next.
“Is that the road we’re going down? It sounds like it,” she said.
Ledger reporter Kimberly C. Moore can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 863-802-7514. Follow her on Twitter at @KMooreTheLedger.
This article originally appeared on The Ledger: Group targets 16 books in Polk County schools they deem obscene