A Florida school district added a parental 'advisory notice' to over 100 books

·6 min read

A southwest Florida school district added warning labels to more than 100 books, many of which touch on issues related to race or the LGBTQ community.

Collier County Public Schools, a district that includes part of Naples, added the labels both on physical copies of the books and in Destiny, the district’s online catalog, according to the nonprofit Florida Freedom to Read Project. The top of the label, according to a photo shared with NBC News by Florida Freedom to Read Project, says “Advisory notice to parents” in capital letters.

“This Advisory Notice shall serve to inform you that this book has been identified by some community members as unsuitable for students,” the label states. “This book will also be identified in the Destiny system with the same notation. The decision as to whether this book is suitable or unsuitable shall be the decision of the parent(s) who has the right to oversee his/her child’s education consistent with state law.”

An advisory notice to parents placed on over 100 books in public schools in Collier County (Courtesy Stephana Ferrell/Florida Freedom to Read Project)
An advisory notice to parents placed on over 100 books in public schools in Collier County (Courtesy Stephana Ferrell/Florida Freedom to Read Project)

A sticker of the notice is on the front inside cover of the books, according to Stephana Ferrell, co-founder of the Florida Freedom to Read Project, which advocates against censorship in Florida schools. Ferrell said a media specialist in the school district shared photos of the labels with her in June.

After a series of public records requests about the labels, challenged books and the district’s creation of a committee that reviews school materials, Ferrell said she received a phone call from Elizabeth Alves, associate superintendent of teaching and learning for Collier County Public Schools.

Ferrell said Alves told her the district began adding the labels in February, after the district’s legal representative spoke with the Florida Citizens Alliance, a conservative group that last year issued a “Porn in Schools Report.” The report included a list of books that “promote gender self-identification and same-sex marriage” as well as titles that include “indecent and offensive material,” according to the group.

Alves defended the decision as “a compromise,” Ferrell said.

“I said, ‘It’s unfortunate, because this is a literary work. The sticker that they chose to put on there, the language that they chose, would make any reader who would otherwise pick up the book based on the cover and the description, it would make them think twice about reading the book,’” Ferrell said of her response to Alves.

Chad Oliver, a spokesman for Collier County Public Schools, confirmed that Alves spoke to Ferrell but denied that the warning labels were added in response to a conversation with the Florida Citizens Alliance. He also denied that Alves called the labels a "compromise" and said Ferrell mischaracterized the conversation.

“Based upon advice from the General Counsel, we placed advisory notices on books about which parents and community members had expressed concern and in accordance with the recently passed Parents’ Bill of Rights Law (HB 241),” Oliver said in an email, referring to a state law that allows parents to object to instructional materials.

A total of 110 books feature the advisory labels, according to PEN America, a nonprofit group that promotes free speech. This list, which PEN America shared with NBC News, has significant overlap with a list of at least 112 books that the Florida Citizens Alliance inquired about in a Dec. 11 email sent to Collier County Public Schools. Ferrell, who obtained the email through a public records request, shared a copy with NBC News.

Keith Flaugh, CEO and co-founder of the Florida Citizens Alliance, confirmed his group submitted a public records request about 112 novels in the district.

“Many of these contain sexually explicit and age inappropriate content,” which he said in an email is in direct violation of Florida laws on obscenity and the sale of harmful materials to minors. He also cited a 2017 law that the group helped draft that allows parents and any residents of the state to object to instructional materials and provide evidence for why they believe the material is inappropriate.

Gender Queer (Oni Press)
Gender Queer (Oni Press)

Some of the titles that appear on both lists — and now have an “advisory notice to parents” warning label in Collier County Public Schools — include LGBTQ- and race-related books that have landed on banned-book lists across the country. These titles include “Gender Queer: A Memoir” by Maia Kobabe, “All Boys Aren’t Blue” by George M. Johnson, and “Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You” by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi. The list also includes literary classics like “Beloved” by Toni Morrison and “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” by Maya Angelou.

Also included is the popular children’s book “Everywhere Babies,” a rhyming, illustrated book about what babies do. The illustrations include what could be interpreted as a few same-sex couples, but they are never identified as such in the text. The book first landed on a banned-book list in Walton County, Florida, in the spring, after the Florida Citizens Alliance included it in its 2021 “Porn in Schools Report.”

“It’s a really good example of just how extreme this is getting,” Jonathan Friedman, director of free expression and education programs at PEN America, said in a phone interview. Some of the images in the book are “assumed to be gay,” he added, and as a result some critics think they require a warning.

“These warning labels are like something you might see on a cigarette package,” Friedman said. “They’re treating it like a controlled, alarming substance. This is literature for young people.”

Oliver said none of the books were removed from the district’s media centers and that parents were made aware of the labels in a districtwide email prior to spring break.

He added that the district is “very mindful and concerned with protecting the rights of all students and employees.”

“At no time were the members of the LGBTQ community a focus of the district’s review,” Oliver said. “Whether we are following new State laws or responding to concerns from community members, Collier County Public Schools is mindful of both U.S. Supreme Court precedent based upon the First Amendment principals, Fourteenth Amendment equal protection principles, and Florida Civil Rights Law.”

The Florida Citizens Alliance supported the Parental Rights in Education law, dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” law by LGBTQ advocates, which bans instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity “in kindergarten through grade 3 or in a manner that is not age appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards.”

Ferrell, a mom of two kids in Orange County Public Schools, said she’s worried about the message the label will send to parents about books that their child might love. For example, she said her son loves the series “The Bad Guys,” by Aaron Blabey, which has been challenged in Florida.

She added that the sticker doesn’t include a disclosure that it was placed there at the request of the parents and community members, and, as a result, it sends the message that the district agrees with the sticker’s sentiment.

“Now, I cannot go in there and make a decision for myself without seeing somebody else’s opinion on this book,” Ferrell said.

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