Why Some Florida Schools Are Removing Books from Their Libraries

In late January, at Greenland Pines Elementary, kids attended a party for an annual event called Celebrate Literacy Week, Florida! There was an escape room and food trucks. Brian Covey, an entrepreneur in his late thirties, came to pick up his daughter, who’s in second grade, and his son, who’s in fifth. His kids looked confused. “Did you hear what happened at school today?” his daughter asked. “They took all the books out of the classrooms.” Covey asked which books. “All the books,” she said. Covey’s son had been reading “Measuring Up,” a coming-of-age story about an immigrant to the United States from Taiwan. Students who read from a list of pre-selected books, including this one, were rewarded with an ice-cream party. “They even took that book,” Covey said.

Covey went into the school classrooms to see what his children were talking about and found bookshelves papered over to hide the books. (He also went to another local school and later uploaded a video to Twitter showing that its shelves were bare.) “This has never been an issue before,” Covey told me, noting that he’d grown up in the same public-school system, in Duval County, which includes Jacksonville. “But I read books about the consequences of this kind of thing when I was in school.” He was thinking of “Fahrenheit 451” and “1984,” he said. His kids, he added, seemed confused about what would make a book inappropriate for school. “The only way I could get them to understand was to ask what happens if a book in the library or classroom had the F-word in it a bunch of times,” he told me. “My son said, ‘We’d bring it to the teacher or the librarian.’ ” Covey couldn’t think of any books at their library that he would keep from them. (Communications officials for the public schools in Duval County insisted that some approved books remained available to students, including those on the list that Covey’s son was reading from.)

Farther south, in Manatee County, on the Gulf Coast, Nicole Harlow has recently begun to see local social-media posts about teachers having to remove or cover up their classroom libraries. Harlow, a veterinary nurse in her early forties, has three children in county schools. Her two youngest are in charter schools; so far, the libraries there seem to have remained largely untouched. But her oldest, Emma, is a tenth grader at Parrish Community High School, where bookcases have been covered with signs reading, “Books Are NOT for Student Use!!”

Harlow pointed me to the Web site of a local group called Community Patriots Manatee. The site features a call to action under the heading “Woke Buster’s Wanted.” The call reads, in part, “Whether your a Tax Payer, Parent, Grandparent, or Community Member, the society that is trying to be created by this deranged wokeness is nothing more than Mental Abuse for Children which WILL ultimately lead into Physical Abuse!” It informs prospective Woke Busters, “We may be in the process of removing books, reviewing curriculum, and making our case with the administrators and school board but this is only the tip of the iceberg. We have to STAY involved and vigilant!” Harlow believes that members of the group may have pressured the school to remove its books. (The group did not respond to an e-mail requesting comment.)

“They seem to be opposed to books that represent all kids,” Harlow said, referring to conservative government officials and advocacy groups in the state. She noted that two of the books that had been challenged or pulled from high-school libraries in previous purges—according to a 2022 PEN America report, Florida has the second-highest number of book bans in the U.S., trailing only Texas—were “The 57 Bus,” a nonfiction Y.A. book about an agender teen-ager whose skirt gets set on fire by another teen, and “The Hate U Give,” the popular fictional story about the aftermath of the shooting of a young Black man by a white police officer. “The books they’ve pulled make their political agenda so clear,” Harlow said. “Excuse me, but it’s total bullshit.”

Harlow put her daughter Emma on the phone. “I’m scared they’re going to take my one history book away,” Emma said. “Our teacher has recently been teaching things that were supposed to come later in the year, closer to the A.P. exam, like slavery and, like, Native Americans.” She went on, “It felt like she’s rushing it towards us, like she’s scared it’s going to be taken away and she wants us to learn about it before they do. It’s, like, if these things don’t get taught, then we end up forgetting.” She added, “It’s kind of scary to think about.”

A spokesperson for the Manatee County Schools sent me a statement: “In regards to books in school media centers or classrooms, the School District of Manatee County is abiding by all applicable laws and statutes of the state of Florida, and adhering to the guidance of the Florida Department of Education.” The district communications officials in Duval County directed me to a January 23rd statement, which notes that the Florida D.O.E. “has trained all Florida schools districts to ‘err on the side of caution’ in determining if a book is developmentally appropriate for student use” and that Duval schools are working “to ensure compliance with all recent legislation regarding books and materials available to children through school media centers and classroom libraries.”

The most recent legislation in question is House Bill 1467, enacted last July, which mandates that books in Florida’s public schools be free of pornography and suited to “student needs,” as determined by a librarian or school media specialist. Those specialists had been waiting for retraining guidelines, which only became available in January, according to Andrew Spar, the president of the Florida Education Association. In a video shared in late January on a YouTube channel with public-school officials in Duval County, the system’s chief academic officer offered new guidance. “Books not on the district-approved list or not approved by a certificated media specialist need to be covered or stored and paused for student use,” she said. According to the Washington Post, Manatee’s superintendent told a teacher, in an e-mail, that violating the law could lead to “a felony of the third degree.” (The bill itself does not outline penalties for educators, but school officials have nonetheless suggested that felony charges are possible under a preëxisting law prohibiting the distribution of pornography to minors.)

Spar estimated that public-school teachers in a third of the state’s counties have been instructed to box or cover up books until they’ve been reviewed for compliance with the new law. In Palm Beach County, two books were removed last spring in anticipation of the law, according to PEN America, and Brevard County’s classroom libraries were “taking a pause” by the summer. But this sort of thing has been happening much more in rural and conservative parts of the state, Spar said. “It’s just not getting out as much from there,” he added, noting that places like Manatee and Duval are bigger media markets. When Florida’s D.O.E. finally released its compliance training for media specialists, Manatee and Duval “arguably overreacted,” Spar said.

“Most teachers I know are in disbelief,” Covey, who has worked as a substitute teacher, told me. “I can only imagine how heartbreaking it is for career educators to have to take kids’ books away and what kinds of threats would have to be passed down to them so they’d feel they had no choice.” The new law also seemed like a logistical nightmare, the burden of which would likely fall on modestly paid school employees. “It’s like a capital investment that they’re not funding,” Covey said, of the hours it would take for specialists to review thousands of books for appropriateness. In the video for Duval school officials, the county’s superintendent notes that the review required “an incredible lift” and has been a “tremendous task.” Covey added, “If I weren’t living through it, I wouldn’t believe it’s happening.”

Both Covey and Harlow see the law as a reflection of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’s Presidential ambitions. DeSantis previously pushed for the passage of a “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which disallows the discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity through third grade, and another bill, known as the Stop WOKE Act, which prohibits teaching that someone “must feel guilt, anguish, or other forms of psychological distress” on account of their race or sex. (In November, a judge temporarily blocked the bill from being enforced at the college level.) DeSantis has proposed mandating Western Civilization courses and banning diversity-equity-and-inclusion programs; his administration recently halted the introduction of advanced-placement classes in African American history, which the College Board had been developing for more than a decade. The College Board subsequently announced revisions to the curriculum, eliminating readings on such topics as critical race theory and Black feminism.

Covey, who describes himself as an independent, said, “I’ll never support a politician that’s using my kids as pawns.” His son, he told me, was still puzzling over the logic of the book removals. “They couldn’t have done permission slips or something?” he asked his father, suggesting that books at least be made available on a parent-by-parent basis. It’s unclear to Covey how exactly book access will be restored, or what timeline and process authorities will use. “Will it be a comprehensive banned list or a school-by-school thing?” he wondered. “I have no idea when my kids will be able to check out books.” (The Duval district officials told me, “The list of approved books grows every day.”) He’s been encouraged, at least, by the way his daughter has grappled with the problem. “She started writing a list of her thoughts, and she decided to make a book out of them,” he said. “It’s right here on the table.” He read the working title to me: “The One Who Took All the Books.”

In Manatee, at Parrish Community High School, there have been other traumatic events in recent days, including alarms that have led to two lockdowns. “Kids jumping fences, running to cars,” Harlow said. Emma texted her from school in a panic during one of them. “I’m so scared,” she wrote. “I love you.” (Both alarms turned out to have been triggered by medical emergencies rather than active shooters.) Harlow said, “Instead of talking about guns, we’re banning books! I’d be lying if I said we’re not looking for a way out of this state.” ♦

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