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2022 in the classroom: A look back on book bans, culture wars, and the fight over parental rights

Florida public schools
Posted at 12:51 PM, Dec 22, 2022

2022 has been a contentious year for Florida’s public schools.

Widespread book bans, Critical Race Theory, and LGBTQ+ topics have been front and center in the debate on what is appropriate content for children.

Florida 24 Network is looking back at which books were shunned from school shelves this year, who was behind it, and what we can expect in 2023.

Public school libraries are often underfunded and overlooked, but in the past few years, they’ve become a battleground in Florida’s debate on education.

According to PEN America, a non-profit tracking book censorship, between 500 to 750 books were banned in Florida schools from July 2021 through June 2022.

That report shows the subjects most frequently covered in those books involved the LGBTQ+ community and people of color.

The controversy largely stems from new Florida laws enacted by Governor Ron Desantis in 2022. In March, he signed HB1557, the Parental Rights in Education Law, which critics call "Don’t Say Gay."

It bans classroom instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity in K-3rd grade or where not deemed age appropriate.

One month later, the governor inked HB7, the so-called "Stop Woke Act." It bans certain topics related to race from being taught in public schools, notably Critical Race Theory, which is the idea that racism is baked into our society.

The classroom culture wars led to the formation of the "Florida Freedom to Read Project," a grassroots mom’s group fighting censorship in libraries.

“It really is going to take all parents getting involved and speaking up," one of the group's founders Stephana Ferrell said. "Right now, we have special interest groups speaking on behalf of our children. None of us want politics in our schools.”

Ferrell, Raegan Miller, and Jen Cousins track challenged books all over the state. They've attended school board meetings and submitted ongoing public records requests to create this comprehensive list.

It includes more than 600 titles, like "The Hate U Give," a coming-of-age story about Black Lives Matter. It also includes "All Boys Aren’t Blue," a memoir by a black LGBTQ+ activist.

Cousins is a mom of four in the Orange County Public School District. One of her kids identifies as nonbinary.

"If you live your whole life never having read or learned about a gay person or somebody who is not white, what kind of adult do you turn out to be?” said Cousins.

Florida 24 Network asked Florida Freedom to Read Project why they think this issue has been coming to light recently.

“Conservative groups,” said Cousins. “Particularly Mom’s for Liberty, Florida Citizens Alliance, No Left Turn in Education.”

Moms for Liberty has challenged books in districts all over the state. But co-founder Tiffany Justice will tell you they don’t ban books.

“Write the book, print the book, put it in your public library if the taxpayers in your community want to pay for that,” said Justice. “Sell the book at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, wherever you’d like to sell it. But there is no place for pornography in America's public school classrooms. When you're talking about parental rights in a public school, children have rights, too and children have the right not to be exposed to sexual material by adults. Certainly, adults who are not their parents.”

Justice gave one example of a book Moms for Liberty has challenged called "How to be an Anti-Racist."

“The governor signed into law a bill that effectively banned Critical Race Theory from being taught in Florida public school classrooms and Florida public schools in general," Justice said. "So, if you're talking about books like 'How to be an Anti-Racist' by Kendi, then that’s Critical Race Theory, and it has no place in our schools.”

These challenges aren’t just impacting school libraries but class activities as well. In Seminole County, Joan Walker Elementary School sent out a memo canceling a holiday book exchange for fourth-grade students.

It cited new Florida law that prohibits certain books, adding, "We won’t be able to monitor all the books being exchanged." The school did a coffee mug exchange instead.

The confusion even continues in the classroom curriculum.

Miller said this discussion unfolded in her daughter’s middle school classroom during a lesson about Emmett Till, a 14-year-old Black boy, tortured and lynched for allegedly whistling at a white woman in 1955.

“My daughter’s teacher brought up Emmett Till and said something about lynching,” said Miller. “And then she backed off of it, and a kid asked, ‘Well, what is a lynching?’ And the teacher said, ‘Oh, I don’t know that I can tell you what that is.’ And the kid’s question, this was in middle school, said, ‘What do you mean? Do people not want us to learn?’ and the teacher said, ‘Some do, and some don’t.’”

While school board meetings over-challenged books have garnered media attention and fired up a conservative base, that might not reflect how the majority of parents feel.

The School District of Indian River County told Florida 24 Network it started an opt-out program for

library books in August 2022. It allows parents to control what books their child has access to, but it hasn’t been popular.

Based on the data they sent us, only about 16% of parents participated in some level of book restrictions. The overwhelming majority, 83% of parents, wanted their kids to have access to whatever books are on school library shelves.

“I think parents who are actually in the system realize this is nonsense,” said Miller. “Banning books is not a popular issue. To take away these children’s access to books because it bothers a vocal minority is really upsetting.”

And it’s not just library books. Textbooks are changing in Florida public schools as well.

Over the summer, The Florida Department of Education rejected several math textbooks submitted by publishers, citing instances of Critical Race Theory.

FDOE is now in the process of reviewing social studies textbooks for K-12 students.