CCDF Takes Its Complaints About 16 School Library Books to Police Departments

County Citizens Defending Freedom is lodging complaints with local law enforcement agencies throughout Polk County about 16 books its group members deem obscene, pornographic or age inappropriate after their complaints in January failed to get any of the books removed from public school library shelves.

“Because the Polk County School Board refused to follow the common-sense opt-in/opt-out process recommended by both Sheriff Grady Judd and Superintendent (Frederick) Heid, CCDF-USA will use all legal methods to protect the minor children of Polk County,” CCDF Polk County leader Robert Goodman said in a statement sent to LkldNow.

Lake Alfred, Winter Haven and Haines City Police department officials, along with Sheriff Grady Judd, say CCDF officials have visited their offices to deliver complaints about books in local schools.

The additional complaints come after Polk County Public Schools’ review committees voted between March and May to keep the 16 books on library shelves throughout the county and Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd said he would not be arresting librarians because the books do not violate state statutes regarding distributing obscene materials to minors.

Heid took into consideration the review committees’ recommendations regarding age appropriateness for each book; for example, some that had been available in middle and high school libraries previously are now available only at high schools. He also continued to use a parental opt-out system that has been in place for decades.

The opt-out system is a more passive approach than opt-in.  Opt-out allows students to have access to any books in their school’s library unless their parent or guardian goes onto the parent portal computer system and checks off any books they don’t want their child reading. When a parent checks the portal section about library access, they are presented with a list of any of the 16 books available at their children’s schools.

Opt-in would have added an additional step for the 16 books in question, which would have been kept behind the librarian’s desk, and would have required parents to approve of their child having access to any of the 16 books in question if they were in their child’s library. Only the 16 books would have been a part of the opt-in process.

“We did receive complaints about books at Ridge Community High School and Haines City High School,” Jim Gouvellis, HCPD spokesman said in an email to LkldNow. “Dozens of complaints, containing the same exact wording, but signed by individuals, were delivered to Haines City Police Department detectives. We reviewed the complaints and determined that this does not merit a criminal investigation by this department. We shared the complaints with the Safe Schools division at the Polk County Sheriff’s Office.”

Judd said a packet of information was dropped off at his office.

“It is under review to determine if there will be a criminal investigation,” Judd said Monday afternoon, adding that while everything reported to them is reviewed, not everything reaches the level of a criminal investigation.

Lake Alfred Police Chief Art Bodenheimer said Goodman visited his station and spoke with one of his lieutenants to file a complaint that “Thirteen Reasons Why” by by Jay Asher was in the library at Lake Alfred Polytech Academy, a middle charter school serving science, technology, engineering and math students.

A review panel – including a CCDF member – voted to keep this book in PCPS libraries. The vote was 16-2 to keep it in middle and high schools only. Heid agreed with their decision.

Bodenheimer said CCDF is still hoping the school district will adopt a new parental opt-in system for the 16 books and that they will be kept behind librarian desks and out of the hands of children. Bodenheimer said he did not remove the book from the school. He said school Principal Britt Gross advised him to talk to the district office and he spoke with Heid.

“At this point, I’m just letting the school board handle it,” Bodenheimer said. “From what I’ve been told — I have talked to the State Attorney’s Office — and it is a situation where I’ve been advised to feel like what’s been done, it’s between the school board, it’s a school board situation to handle.”

Winter Haven Police Chief David Brannen said his office also received a visit.

“We documented this as information because the referenced books do not meet the criteria of obscene material,” Brannen said. “We will not be investigating criminally.”

Lakeland Police Chief Ruben Garcia said his office has not had a visit from CCDF.  Lake Wales Police did not respond.

School Board member Lisa Miller wondered at a recent meeting why, while CCDF had put the school district through a months-long review process and threatened to sue the district, the organization had not, up to that point, filed complaints with charter schools, where some of their children and grandchildren attend.

District officials provided LkldNow with PCPS’s Destiny system’s records on several charter schools and the 16 books, explaining that PCPS has limited access to charter school library records. It shows that Lake Wales High School has:

  • “Beloved” by Toni Morrison
  • “Thirteen Reasons Why” by Jay Asher
  • “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” by Jonathan Safran Foer
  • “Nineteen Minutes” by Jodi Picoult

The library at Discovery Academy in Lake Alfred has three of the books: “Drama” by Raina Telgemeier; “The Bluest Eye” and “Beloved” by Toni Morrison.

McKeel Academy of Technology’s website shows it has:

  • “The Bluest Eye” and “Beloved”
  • “Tricks”
  • “Drama”
  • “The Kite Runner” by Khaled Hosseini
  • “Thirteen Reasons Why”

The school district does not have a checkout history for any of these books.

At a May 10 Polk School Board meeting, four school board members – a majority of the seven-member panel — voiced their opposition to opt-in, wanting keep the decades-long process currently in place. The School Board did not have to vote on the issue, according to school district attorney Wes Bridges.

“I would not be supportive of an opt-in from the library books,” School Board Chairwoman Sara Beth Wyatt said.  “As far as having a permission slip for the classes, I think anything you’re being required to read in class, you should have a permission slip for.  But if it’s something that is a library book that they’re able to get off the shelf, I think we need to have an opt-out for the library books, not an opt-in.  I could see putting an asterisk or something by the books that have currently been reviewed just as a ‘Parents, know these are the ones that are having issues,’ that indicates which ones that have been reviewed. But I would not want to have an opt-in option.”

School Board member Sarah Fortney agreed.

“I think an asterisk would suffice for somebody who cares enough to opt their kid out,” Fortney said. “Then let them know easily these are the 16 and, when the next 16 show up, we can add an asterisk.”

School district attorney Wes Bridges said during the May 10 meeting that there is a new state process in place for reviewing new library books and materials coming in to a school.

“And I would just point out to the School Board and the audience that it’s a whole lot easier to decide up front not to place a book or a work on the shelf than it is to subsequently remove one,” Bridges said. “Removing materials is where school boards get into deep water, as discussed by the Supreme Court.”

Heid said he is asking school librarians, also known as media specialists, to wait until their school receives the entirety of any new shipment. “Then (we) do the advertisement for 30 days and then they can shelf materials,” Heid said about the new process. “We would advertise it before a book even goes to a shelf.” 

The next School Board meeting is Tuesday, Sept. 6. A work session is scheduled for 12:30 p.m., with the regular board meeting at 5 p.m. Those wishing to speak at the evening board meeting must sign up before the meeting begins.

Kimberly C. Moore is an award-winning reporter and a Lakeland native.  She can be reached at [email protected] or 863-272-9250.