LAKELAND, Fla. — The future of 16 books pulled from school library shelves across Polk County Public Schools could be decided by school board members in a pair of Tuesday meetings.
In a 3:30 p.m. work session, Superintendent Frederick Heid is expected to share his recommendation with the board to return all 16 books to library shelves at "age-appropriate" capacities. Some of the titles would be restricted to older grades.
In a 5 p.m. board meeting, board members could vote to accept or reject Heid’s recommendation. Additionally, board members might choose to take no vote at all.
The books have sparked an often-passionate, thorough debate between those who argue they’re important pieces of literature and those who believe they’re inappropriate for a student audience.
The books include the harrowing story of an abused young Black girl who’s the victim of racism and sexual abuse, “The Bluest Eye”; an illustrated guide about puberty, sex, and LGBTQ identity, “It’s Perfectly Normal”; and the traumatic story of an Afghan boy, “The Kite Runner.” The library books are not “required reading” for any Polk County students.
In an Apr. 26 meeting, more than a dozen speakers argued the books should be permanently pulled from school library shelves. One speaker compared the books to rat poison and said that even though they are considered art and literature — and include portions that are innocuous — they also include explicit passages that could corrupt the minds of young students.
“Why would you do that?” another speaker, Paul Hatfield, asked the board. “Why would you dirty their minds with this junk?”
In January, the County Citizens Defending Freedom (CCDF), a conservative group that said its mission is to “hold local governments accountable,” challenged the books, though the actual challenge forms were filled out by people in other counties, according to a district spokesperson. The petitioners argued the books violate Florida law which bars the distribution of materials on school campuses that is “harmful to minors.”
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As a result, the books were swiftly pulled from the shelves of school libraries across the district to allow for the district to formally review them.
In the ensuing months, two 18-member panels of educators, students, activists, and parents reviewed all 16 titles in a structured, transparent process.
Some, like Kathy Bucklew — a member of one of the panels and a representative of CCDF — argued books like “The Kite Runner” are not suitable for a student audience.
“To me, the first clue that it’s not suitable for children under 18 was…when words were used that the CARA — the Classification and Rating Administration for motion pictures — usually reserves for NC-17 — no one under 18 allowed,” she said during Mar. 10 a review of the novel.
However, the vast majority of panelists seemed to agree that the books do have literary and educational value.
“It’s a coming of age story that’s relatable from the beginning of life to the end, and there’s so many messages about compassion and atonement,” said Nicole Grassel-Torres, a Haines City High School teacher and panelist, during the same discussion of “The Kite Runner” in March.
Ultimately, panelists voted that all 16 books should return to library bookshelves in various "age-appropriate" capacities.
In his recommendations to the school board, Superintendent Heid mostly agreed with the panelists’ votes.
His recommendation, by and large, keeps the 16 books at grade levels where they were available before the review. However, his recommendation would restrict two of the books — currently available to both middle school and high school grades — to high school-aged students only, "Nineteen Minutes" and "The Bluest Eye." His recommendation would restrict another book that's currently available to students in all grade levels — "Drama" — to middle and high school-aged students. It would expand access to two other titles , "George" and "More Happy Than Not."
“I think what we’ve done is acted in good faith to honor grade-level expectations, empowering parents to make informed decisions,” Heid told board members in an Apr. 26 work session.
According to the school district, in the Tuesday board meeting, the board could vote to accept or deny the superintendent’s recommendation. Board members could also choose to take no action.
“The School Board is responsible for the adoption of curriculum/instructional materials and any other supplements that are used as part of core instruction. Schools have historically been responsible for the adoption of media materials,” the district’s Director of Communication Jason Geary wrote in an email to ABC Action News. “As such, the School Board is not required to vote on the superintendent’s recommendations.”
See the superintendent’s full list of recommendations below:
Additionally, the superintendent said that a parent already has the ability to limit his or her student’s access to any library books they deem inappropriate.
“What we will allow is there will be an electronic log-in where parents can go in. They’ll be able to log in to their child’s school, and they’ll be able to see every book within a current library. Parents, then, can make an informed decision and opt their child out of certain books by clicking and checking the boxes next to them,” Heid said.
He added that the process will be simplified and heavily publicized before the start of the 2022-2023 school year.
According to a recent I-Team investigation, 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, ABC Action News found — while school districts have received challenges — the majority of districts are not being flooded with book challenges or subsequent book removals from library shelves.