TAMPA, Fla. — “If you’re reading a book and you’re digging, looking for anything sexual, I honestly fee like you’re the problem,” said committee member and Polk County civics teacher Simone Paolercio.
On a recent Tuesday night in Polk County, about a dozen people gathered in a school district meeting room to discuss…books.
But a book club this was not. Instead, the individuals discussing books are members of the school district’s recently formed book review committees.
The committees are voluntary. They’re made up of educators, parents, community members, and students who read, review, and offer their opinions over whether books that were available to students in some of the district’s school libraries should stay or be removed for violating state laws for being too sexually explicit or obscene for minors.
Kathy Bucklew is among its members. She’s also a member of Polk County’s Chapter for County Citizens Defending Freedom. The conservative group describes its mission online as “to equip and empower American citizens to stand for and preserve freedom for themselves and future generations.”
The group is also behind the 16 book challenges submitted to the Polk County School District, though the actual challenge forms were filled out by people in other counties, according to a district spokesperson.
“There are so many options for students that are so positive, why do we have to keep 16 books that are questionable,” explained Bucklew who is retired and does not currently have any children of her own attending a Polk County public school.
When asked if her opinions were based on books that address sex, Bucklew responded, “it’s not that they talk about sex, it’s how they talk about sex,” she said.
As of Thursday, the district’s book committees had reviewed a total of six books, with the majority of members voting not to ban them from school libraries or even change which grade levels have access to the books.
“This is the kind of stuff that matters to me,” explained 16-year-old Santiago Duarte, a junior at a Polk County high school.
Duarte is among student reviewers offering their insights to the district on the challenged books. On the evening we attended, Duarte and the committee were discussing, “It’s Perfectly Normal” by Robie H. Harris.
The book has been a popular target of book bans around the country for its descriptions of puberty, sex, and relationships along with illustrations, which include members of the LGBTQ community. Duarte showed us one of the illustrations depicting characters wearing rainbow colors, which is the most notable symbol of the LGBTQ community.
“This image is a cartoon, it’s harmless. I disagree that it’s an indoctrination and there’s an agenda behind it. There are just normal people like you and me,” he told us.
Across the country, the number of books challenged last year to libraries, schools, and universities reached 729,a record according to the American Library Association.
Across Florida, we found while school districts have received challenges; the majority are not being flooded with book challenges or subsequent book removals from campus library shelves.
Beginning in February, we asked Florida’s 67 school districts how many book challenges each received, how many books were under review and how many books had been removed from school libraries.
Of 45 school districts that responded to our requests, just seven districts told us they had received challenges, with most of them challenged over just a few books.
The (16) book challenges filed with the Polk County School District are among the highest. The district with the most book challenges so far is the Indian River County school district,where 156 challenges have been submitted on behalf of the conservative moms' group, Moms for Liberty.
One of the organization’s co-founders also lives in the county.
But like most districts facing book challenges, Indian River County’s school board decided to only remove (5) of the 156 books challenged. Moms for Liberty is appealing.
But parents who condemn school book bans remain concerned.
Jen Cousins and Stephana Ferrell founded Florida Freedom to Read Project after their district, Orange County public schools, received a few book challenges. To date, just one book, “Gender Queer” has been removed from school libraries in the district.
Cousins and Ferrell fear the passage of new laws which include new training for media specialists, an opening for parent lawsuits, and a public review period for all instructional material, including library books, will force districts to take a ‘no-risk’ policy when it comes to the kinds of books they choose to purchase for school libraries.
“That ongoing pressure to either not put a book on the shelf in the first place, not bring up a topic in the classroom or just pull something that gets challenged to the point where it says this violates law and just quickly pull it and remove it, that’s what we’re concerned about,” said Ferrell.
In Polk County, the future of the (16) books challenged will ultimately rest with the school board. But not without its book review members offering their own words in person and on paper.
“Children need things that are positive and not be entertained or be involved in introductory pornography,” said Kathy Bucklew.