New opt-in system keeps 16 books off Polk County school shelves

The first day of school in Polk County is two weeks away, and 16 books will no longer be on public school library shelves. Parents will have the say on what titles their children can check out and read.

Polk County Public Schools Superintendent Frederick Heid unveiled this new system during a school board work session Tuesday. His plan keeps the 16 titles off library shelves and behind the circulation desk, so parental permission can be verified before one of the novels can be checked out.

Parents will have two chances, 15 days in August, and 15 days in January, to opt-in and give their children access to read any of those 16 books that were part of the district-wide review.

"I think this is a win for everybody because if somebody wants their child to have access to that, they have it," said Robert Goodman.

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Parents will have the option to opt-in for any of the 16 books. Expanding on an already existing opt-out program for every title at their student’s library.

The plan was not on the agenda, and not up for a vote, but a handful of people turned out to Tuesday’s school board meeting to comment on the new policy.

Photo: Titles of the 16 books removed from Polk County school shelves.

"A parent has to be able to say I understand there may be content in here that is not at an age-appropriate level for my child, and they have the option to back out of that," Goodman said.

The books were pulled from library shelves across the district earlier this year after the content was formally challenged by the group County Citizens Defending Freedom, saying the literary works may violate state laws on harmful and obscene materials.

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Two committees were formed to determine if the novels were appropriate for students, and both groups voted to keep the books at school libraries for specific grade levels.

"I think the opt-in is basically a very pretty way of saying we’re censoring this material for public consumption," said Joellen McPeak, a high school English teacher.

McPeak took to the mic to say parents need to be involved in their student’s education but believes the kids should be able to self-select literature. She is concerned this policy could enable the reviewed book list to grow beyond the current 16 titles.

"I think it’s a bad precedent simply because our parents have always had the option to opt-out of any book in the media center, in our classrooms, any curriculum," McPeak said.

The superintendent declined to comment, but officials said the district is moving forward with this opt-in plan and will be providing families with more information about the new system soon.