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'Book closed' on Clay County’s book debate

Posted 5/9/24

FLEMING ISLAND – The Clay County School Board voted 5-0 to adopt its newest media policy , discerning which students can access books in public school libraries, and 3-2 to adopt its latest  …

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'Book closed' on Clay County’s book debate


Posted

FLEMING ISLAND – The Clay County School Board voted 5-0 to adopt its newest media policy, discerning which students can access books in public school libraries, and 3-2 to adopt its latest procedure on May 2 for how challenged library materials will be removed.

The approved policy and procedure were revised during the months-long Clay County “book ban” debate, an ongoing endeavor to address the 859 titles that have been challenged and the 334 titles that have been removed from public elementary, junior and senior high school libraries according to the latest official district reconsideration list.

CCDS was formally the nation’s frontrunner for book challenges and removals in public school libraries. The current leader is Escambia County, which is concurrently facing a federal lawsuit from the free speech group PEN America and Penguin Random House.

The lawsuit in Escambia has been referenced in school board workshop meetings, and it was allegedly the driving force behind the district’s renewed effort to amend the media policy once again one year after it had done so in April 2023.

CCDS’s unanimously approved policy, a product of collaborative efforts, attempts to compromise between free speech advocates, such as Tara Richardson from Clay County Educators-Retired, and concerned parents, such as Bruce Friedman.

The policy (titled “Challenged Materials Policy – Reconsideration or Review of Library Materials”) notably establishes a guideline of community standards, which would flag books as "mature" for containing profanity, horror, violence, drugs and gender theory, etc. At the beginning of the next school year, parents will sign an online, hybrid opt-in/opt-out form and select one of five options to control what books will be accessible for their children: unlimited access, general access, limited access, no access or daily email alerts.

The narrowly approved procedural component (“Library Media Services Manual”) was more contentious.

The two dissenting votes were from School Board Members Michele Hanson and Erin Skipper, who have spearheaded the school district’s effort to amend the policy established in April 2023.

Hanson and Skipper organized the open forum on Jan. 16, which gathered feedback and suggestions from the community.

The takeaway from the open forum and the basis for designing the new media policy was to empower parental decision-making. This widely agreed-upon tenet was used as the basis during subsequent workshops as the draft was ironed out to adhere to state statutes.

Hanson said the procedural component, which is how the policy is implemented across the district, was “very vague and may not support the policy.”

She wanted specific language in the procedure that describes what steps should be taken when a book challenge is submitted, when a book should be pulled from the shelf and how banned books should be discarded.

School Board attorney Jeremiah Blocker and Superintendent David Broskie have previously affirmed the policy and procedure are consistent with Florida law.

"If we (want) to stay lock-tight, lawsuit-free, every single part of our policy needs to be spelled out clearly (in the procedure)," Hanson said at the workshop on April 23. 

"This meets the statutory requirements. Yes, the exact wording needs to be worked on," Broskie responded, referring to the procedural component.

Even following the 5-0 and 3-2 decisions, the debate remains "earmarked" to continue in future school board meetings and workshops. Hanson is interested in fleshing out the procedural component that CCDS staff must follow. 

Hanson commended Friedman after two years of not always seeing eye-to-eye. 

“Mr. Friedman is the sole reason we have removed almost 400 obscene materials (334 titles removed and 55 additional titles that have been deselected/weeded out) from our libraries," she said. "And he catches a lot of flak. I disagree with half of what he submitted. But when it comes to obscene materials, nobody in this room had ever thought there would be this many. I am proud of this county."

The sentiment the CCDS library collection is "pornographic" is statistically false. 

It is important to note there are over 20,000 books in the CCDS library system. Even following the tenet to "err on the side of caution," 389 titles have been made inaccessible from 859 submitted challenges, meaning more than half of all challenges are eventually tossed out. Nearly 100 books that were challenged and removed were eventually returned to the shelf, including “Sulwe” by Lupita Nyong'o

Earlier in April, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a law restricting book challenge submissions to one a month for people who do not have children enrolled in the school district. There is no limit to submitting book challenges for people who have children enrolled in the school district.

Friedman, who said he has a child enrolled in CCDS, is now facing a time crunch. Under the new law, he has until they graduate to continue submitting objections freely.