‘We know who the radicals are’: What people think of Florida teachers hiding bookshelves

Tiffany Tompkins/ttompkins@bradenton.com

Florida’s Manatee County has been in the national spotlight this week after photos of covered classroom bookshelves went viral on social media.

On Tuesday, the School Board addressed the controversy at a meeting. attended by about 50 people. Three mothers spoke in favor of the district’s actions in response to a new Florida law, and a library media specialist spoke against.

“For those teachers who are protesting so much, thank you. Now we know who some of the radicals are,” parent Paula Lohnes said during public comment.

The law, HB 1467, was championed by Gov. Ron DeSantis in a push for parental rights in Florida classrooms. It takes aim at books containing “bias or indoctrination,” “pornography” and content “harmful to minors.” It requires all reading material in classrooms and libraries to be approved by each district.

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

On Tuesday, there also seemed to be confusion on how principals and teachers were interpreting the district’s memo.

“As far as I know, there aren’t any book cops going school to school and classroom to classroom,” Manatee School Board chairman Chad Choate said. “Just don’t go allow your books to go out right now until they’re all vetted.

“I don’t think we need to create more of an issue by throwing sheets over, turning books around,” Choate added. “We’ll get through this. It’s gonna take some time.”

Others defended teachers’ reactions to the new rules.

“The information that was disseminated was not consistent in every single school,” said Patricia Barber, the president of the county’s teachers union. “And like it or not, some principals’ interpretation of ‘do not allow student access to your classroom libraries until they’ve been vetted was cover them, box them or do whatever to keep your students from having access.”

On Tuesday, there was still not a clear consensus among district officials on how teachers should proceed in restricting access to unvetted books.

“Are we telling them leave the blanket on or off?” School Board member Mary Foreman asked.

“I’m not giving any direction of that kind. If it’s approved by the district or in Destiny, it’s immediately available to students,” said Laurie Breslin, the county school district’s executive director of curriculum.

‘It takes forever’

In Manatee County, on Florida’s Gulf coast, the district is relying heavily on volunteer power to vet books and get approved titles back on classroom shelves.

“It takes forever,” said board member Mary Foreman. “I spent the last two days at a Title 1 school going through the process. I got four classrooms done.”

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

“One thing that we can’t do is stop teachers focusing on their students,” Breslin said. She explained that the district is instead relying on community volunteers to come into classrooms and start checking books.

Books that are not on the approved list must be added to a spreadsheet for further consideration by the certified media specialist at each school.

Ultimately, the media specialist and principal at each school will be responsible for deeming which books are allowed to stay, Breslin said.

In cases where schools do not agree whether a particular book is appropriate, the decision will be elevated to the the School Board for final say, Superintendent Cynthia Saunders said Tuesday.

That process has yet to be figured out, with further discussion planned for a School Board workshop on Friday.

School Board member Gina Messenger said she supports the law but raised concerns that parents at Title I schools may have less time to volunteer or access to books outside of school.

“I have concerns with this stall that we have now, and how that will affect certain segments of our population,” Messenger said.

It also takes the school district up to 10 days to background check volunteers before they can go into schools, Breslin said, adding another delay in the process.

In the meantime, students still have access to books in school media centers, which already went 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 its book vetting process.

Other School Board members threw their support behind the measure.

“I’m going to con the phrase ‘media morals.’ There has to be morals when we’re talking about our students,” said School Board member Cindy Spray.

“The libraries are the garden that has been weeded, and now we’re going into the classrooms and trying to weed those gardens, so to speak,” said School Board member Richard Tatem.

‘Tremendous’ angst

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

The law “allows conservatives to weed out books and classroom material that they find offensive,” parent-founded advocacy organization Florida Freedom to Read Project said in a recent post.

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

“It has caused a tremendous amount of angst,” Barber said Tuesday night.