Censoring the school library? Manatee County officials to hold special meeting in battle over books

In an effort to ensure compliance with Florida’s new school book rules, some Manatee County teachers say they’ve had to physically cover up or block access to classroom bookshelves.

The reason for such extreme measures? Anyone found in violation of a new Florida law could face a third-degree felony charge.

Last year, Governor Ron DeSantis signed new guidelines into law that update the procedures for vetting, approving, and challenging materials taught or provided in Florida’s public and charter schools. According to the new guidelines, books made available to students must not include any content that could be deemed pornographic, or "not suited to student needs and their ability to comprehend the material presented, or is inappropriate for the grade level and age group for which the material is used."

Per instruction guidelines outlined in Florida statute 1003.42, reading materials must also be free of bias and "indoctrination" when discussing race, cultural diversity, or socioeconomic issues. 

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Since Jan. 1, school librarians, media specialists, and all other personnel involved in the selection of school district library materials and reading lists have been required to complete a training program to ensure reviewers understand state compliance requirements.

According to HB 1467, "each book made available to students through a school district library media center or included in a recommended or assigned school or grade-level reading list must be selected by a school district employee who holds a valid educational media specialist certificate, regardless of whether the book is purchased, donated, or otherwise made available to students."

Those vague parameters and new vetting guidelines have left many educators wondering if all books in their classrooms are in the clear.

Manatee Education Association head Pat Barber says district officials haven’t been of much assistance in resolving the confusion. The Manatee County School District has advised teachers and librarians to "err on the side of caution" when considering which books should be available to students.

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Barber says classroom bookshelves should be considered off-limits to students until titles have undergone a formal vetting process with the school’s trained evaluator. Several teachers have called that process cumbersome and lengthy.

"My understanding is the district is trying to assist by recruiting volunteers to help with the vetting. This causes angst among the media specialists, who are concerned volunteers might not screen to the legal standards of the state," explained Barber. "The media specialists are the ones who will have to answer for mistakes, not the volunteers."

Barber, who began her teaching career in 1973, says she’s experienced the ebbs and flows of parental attention to reading materials throughout her decades of teaching, but nothing quite like the current climate.

"My first year of teaching, I had a small group of parents object to the book 1984, but not to the extent where they were trying to change laws," recalls Barber.

Barber fears the new law, which allows anyone, anywhere, to challenge any book in any Florida school, will only further exacerbate the state’s teacher shortage and will ultimately hurt Florida students.

"We have people who have spent their entire careers building their classroom libraries based on their professional and educational experience and understanding of the age of the children they teach. Now, their professional judgment and training are being substituted for the opinion of anyone who wishes to review and challenge the books," said Barber. "We’re focused on things that cause teachers to want to walk away from education because they can’t focus on their mission of educating children."

The Manatee County School Board has two meetings scheduled this week to discuss the changes related to the new law. The first will begin at 5 p.m. on Tuesday. 

A second meeting on Friday will include a review of 30 books formally challenged by community members