Escambia School Board votes to keep 4 challenged books after 7+ hours of debate

After nearly 8 hours of debate over four challenged Escambia County Public School library books, the Escambia school board voted to keep all four books in circulation Monday night. However, the books will only be accessible to certain grade levels the board has deemed age appropriate.

More than 150 speaker forms were turned in to speak, not including unused forms for people who left the meeting before their time to speak, according to ECPS spokesperson Cody Strother.

The meeting marked the third round of evaluations to remove books from the reconsideration list that has climbed to 176 challenged titles. The first book on the list, "The Perks of Being a Wallflower," was requested for review back in June 2022.

Up until Monday night’s meeting, all four books previously sent to the board were banned from Escambia County Public School libraries.

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Four books under challenge

Monday’s books in question were “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison, “Drama” by Raina Telgemeier, "The Nowhere Girls" by Amy Reed and "New Kid" by Jerry Craft. The books were criticized for addressing topics such as rape, LGBTQ relationships and racism.

All four were challenged by Northview High School Teacher Vicki Baggett, who cited reasons such “indoctrination of LGBTQ,” “sexual introductions,” “race-baiting” and “anti-whiteness.”

The District Materials Review Committee, comprised of media specialists, administrators, teachers, parents and community members, recommended that all four books remain on school library shelves.

Ultimately, the school board sided with the recommendation of the review committee.

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‘Diverse stories are essential’

Supporters of the books filled the room, the majority wearing themed red shirts, advocating for the board to heed the advice of their committee and keep the books available for students.

Many pointed out that the books are all for self-selection in the library and are not being used in the classroom as instructional materials. Parents also can opt their students in or out of challenged materials if they feel their child should not have access to the title. However, that does not mean all students should not have that same opportunity to interact with young adult literature, speakers argued.

One of the titles, "Drama," involving a boy who has a crush on another boy, does not depict any sexual scenes in the book. Some speakers, such as West Florida High School history teacher J.W. Novotny, spoke on the power of representation that books contain.

“My space (classroom) will always be a safe place for trans kids, Black kids and any other kid who needs a safe space. We are told to keep politics out of the classroom as teachers, I say we also keep the politicians out of the classroom,” Novotny said. “Majority rule does not make minorities' rights obsolete. Do we know why diverse stories are essential? They validate the experience of those who can see themselves in these stories.”

Novotny said he has seen this firsthand, such as a student who referred to one of her two moms as an “aunt” to friends because she found it difficult to explain where she came from “over and over.”

Stories that are banned for normalizing homosexual relationships are problematic for how students feel about their own identity and lives, he continued.

Roy Skinner shared a similar sentiment, saying that one family’s religious beliefs should not influence the opportunities for all children.

“We got people marching up here with their Bibles, quoting their Bible verses they’ve already memorized. Separation of church and state needs to be applied here,” Skinner said.

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‘These things are unnatural’

Others who took the stand argued their main concern was children being exposed to topics and sexually descriptive text passages they do not consider to be age appropriate.

Joseph Meehan felt some of the passages in the book, such as a detailed account of sexual assault, put the board at risk for exposing children to pornography, which would violate state statute.

“This is what child pornography is. If you endorse child pornography, you can be held liable for child pornography,” Meehan said. “You as the leaders have the authority to change that committee’s perception or their decision.”

Aaron Schneier, a regular speaker at the board’s meetings, argued that exposing children to homosexuality through literature is not Biblical.

“The Bible says that these things (homosexual relationships) are unnatural. That’s another reason why we don’t want them in our schools. We don’t need to bring perverted things and perversion for our children. There is a day of judgment coming and I wish that you all would know — it’s not funny —the blood of Jesus Christ. That you would have forgiveness,” Schneier said.

What happens after a book is challenged?

Once a book is requested for reconsideration, the book is reviewed by the District Materials Review Committee. The people that make up the committee varies for each book to include a diverse group of opinions and experiences, and there is currently a waitlist for certain roles. The committee reads the book, cover to cover, not solely the sections in question.

All meetings for the committee’s discussion can be observed by the public and are posted on the district’s school calendar on the website.

The committee comes to decision on whether the book should be allowed for all schools in the district, certain schools, or none at all.

Once the committee places their vote, the decision is sent to the person who made the initial reconsideration request. If unsatisfied with the committee’s decision, an appeal is made, and the issue then goes before the school board.

Each board member has access to the book in questions, the committee’s notes and decision, professional reviews of the books including any awards or recognition it has received and the complaints made against it.

The board holds a public forum to hear input from the community to help inform their decision.

A full list of reconsiderations can be accessed on the Escambia County Public Schools website under the Media Services tab under “Reconsideration of Educational Media.”

This article originally appeared on Pensacola News Journal: Escambia, Florida school board votes not to ban 4 challenged books