Another culture-wars challenge to books in public school libraries is heating up. The conservative organization County Citizens Defending Freedom is objecting to 15 books as Polk County Public Schools prepares to purchase 37,000 books for the media centers of two new schools.

Pam Luce, CCDF’s education leader for Polk County, wrote in an email to PCPS Superintendent Frederick Heid and board members that CCDF volunteers had read 15,000 of the books proposed for two libraries at two soon-to-open schools and found 15 objectionable. The schools are an elementary school on the edge of Winter Haven and a kindergarten-through-8th-grade school in Haines City.

The organization asked Heid in the email and the School Board members at Tuesday night’s meeting for a second one-month extension before the district buys the books so CCDF members can finish their review.

“Thank you all so much for allowing the extra 30 days – we’ve gotten through about 15,000 books and 7,500 I’ve reviewed those myself. So it is a very, very daunting task,” Luce told members during public comment at Tuesday’s School Board meeting.

She continued: “I did send you a list of some of the ones we found and they’re not only just about trans or they’re not only just about (Critical Race Theory). Some of these things were just abhorrent for a child to read. Child trafficking, slaughter, demon possession.  A father dying after having an affair – does an elementary school child really need to read about that?  … We do have to protect our children. We do have to watch out for what they’re seeing.  And this is about parental rights. This is what this is about. This is about my right. If I were still a parent of young children, or even just being a grandparent, that we have concerns about what our children are seeing and hearing.”

CCDF is the group that filed a complaint about 16 books one year ago, saying that Polk County Public Schools was “distributing pornography to children,” allowing children to read books that indoctrinated them into the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer lifestyle, or indoctrinated them into Critical Race Theory, a field of study at some colleges and universities that teaches about the systemic racism that pervaded – and some say still pervades – the United States. They threatened to have librarians arrested.

The complaint came as part of a nationwide effort during the midterm elections by conservative groups.

Two panels consisting of 16 people each, including teachers, guidance counselors, parents, psychologists, students, and members of CCDF and the NAACP, reviewed all 16 books and recommended leaving them on library shelves.  Superintendent Frederick Heid recommended the books be kept at age-appropriate levels.

The School Board balked at keeping the books behind librarians’ shelves and having parents opt their children into reading them.  Several members said they wanted to continue using the system that has been in place for decades, which requires parents to opt their child out of any book found in their child’s library.

CCDF took its complaints to local law enforcement officials, but neither State Attorney Brian Haas nor Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd nor any police chief approached about this issue would arrest a librarian or prosecute school officials.

“We agree many excerpts from the various books are vile, odious, and abhorrent. If these adjectives don’t adequately explain the text, some passages are just filthy and nasty,” Judd wrote in a generic letter in September to any citizen who contacted him on the issue. “However, it is painfully obvious that, despite the horribleness of the text, which I believe at a bare minimum grooms children and desensitizes the young mind, while exposing them to deviant conduct, the materials presented don’t rise to the level of investigation and prosecution under the obscenity laws of the State of Florida. Simply put, everything that is pornographic and/or perverted is not criminally illegal under the very technical Florida obscenity law.”

Kyle Kennedy, PCPS spokesman, said 165 parents have used the opt-out system this school year. Of that number, 74 have opted out of at least one book that was challenged last year. Kennedy noted that was less than one percent of all of PCPS families. Approximately 113,000 students attend one of about 150 Polk County public schools.

The library books are not part of any curriculum and are not required reading.

Luce also asked that the district work with CCDF to come up with some kind of book rating system.

One of the books CCDF is complaining about is “Rise Up!” by Crystal Fleming, which also has the subtitle “How You Can Join The Fight Against White Supremacy”.

The preface reads: “What is racism? Where did it come from? Why does it still exist? And what can we do about it? These are the kinds of questions that may have led you to this book.”

Other books on the list include “Stamped (for kids): Racism, Antiracism and You,” and “Equality, Social Justice and Our Future”.

Without naming specific objectionable passages in those social studies books, currently scheduled to be purchased for the K-8 school in Haines City, CCDF officials say seven titles “should not be in schools according to Florida House Bill 7,” commonly known as the “Stop Woke Act.” The bill was championed by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and passed the Florida Legislature last year.

The bill, among other things, prohibits teaching:

  • “Members of one race, color, sex, or national origin are morally superior to members of another race, color, sex, or national origin.
  • “An individual, by virtue of his or her race, color, sex, or national origin, is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously.
  • “An individual’s moral character or status as either privileged or oppressed is necessarily determined by his or her race, color, sex, or national origin.
  • “Members of one race, color, sex, or national origin cannot and should not attempt to treat others without respect to 83 race, color, sex, or national origin.
  • “An individual, by virtue of his or her race, color, sex, or national origin, bears responsibility for, or should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment because of, actions committed in the past by other members of the same race, color, sex, or national origin.
  • “An individual, by virtue of his or her race, color, 90 sex, or national origin, should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment to achieve diversity, equity, or inclusion.
  • “An individual, by virtue of his or her race, color, sex, or national origin, bears personal responsibility for and must feel guilt, anguish, or other forms of psychological distress because of actions, in which the individual played no part, committed in the past by other members of the same race, color, sex, or national origin.”

The bill also revised requirements for “instruction on the history of African Americans” and prohibits “classroom instruction and curricula from being used to indoctrinate or persuade students in a manner inconsistent with certain principles or state academic standards” and prohibits “instructional materials reviewers from recommending instructional materials that contain any matter that contradicts certain principles.”

Other books CCDF found objectionable contain things they say is not appropriate for elementary-school-aged children.

For instance, the historical fiction book “Puritan Girl, Mohawk Girl” by John Putnam Demos contains the “graphic depiction of Indian raid on puritan village; murder of baby; capture of 8 (year) old girl; Stockholm syndrome of girl remaining (with) capturers.” The publisher said it is written for upper elementary school grades. Staff looked at the professional reviews of multiple companies, which recommended the book for a range of grade levels, with some beginning in 5th grade and others beginning in 8th grade. It was a National Book Award finalist.

The preface reads: “When Christopher Columbus and other explorers got to America from Europe, they found millions of people already living there. They didn’t know where they had landed, or who those people were … They saw America as a ‘new world.’ They settled on the land and claimed it for themselves. They started farms, villages, and towns. They organized ‘colonies’ that belonged to their home countries in Europe. They didn’t ask permission from the Indians; they just went ahead with their plans.”

About half a dozen people at Tuesday’s School Board meeting spoke in favor of waiting one more month to purchase the books. They said it was poor planning on the part of the school district to allow only one month (extended to two) to review 37,000 books.

Heid said many of the books were science or social studies books which are currently found in other Polk  County public schools and he had not expected any objection. He said the district is following state guidelines in purchasing the books.

New School Board member Justin Sharpless, who eschewed the support of CCDF during his campaign, asked School Board attorney Wes Bridges and Heid if any of the books being considered for these collections violate any state statutes and was the proper process used to select these books, consistent with board policy and state statutes.

“I can affirm that. Yes, we follow the protocol,” Heid said. “The (15) books that were submitted late this afternoon as having raised concerns, you have comprehensive summaries with at least three (district staff) reviews conducted on each to justify their presence and or inclusion within this purchase.”

Heid said senior administrative staff in the media collections department reviewed the books. He also pointed out that the 16 books objected to last year were not included in the collections being purchased.

Bridges reminded the public that after the books are approved for purchase, they have 30 days to file a formal complaint.  And even after that, Polk County residents can file complaints at any time about any book in any public school library.

“There is no protocol to remove books prior to their adoption,” Heid added. “The state did not provide information or details as to how that was to be done, as well. And so the whole point was the same 30 days that have been provided thus far are already included within statute and procedure … They still have every opportunity to challenge the books at the individual school level, which is clearly delineate within our policy and again, expressly delineated within statute and rule as well. So there are multiple safety, safety guards and safety nets in place to ensure that we are compliant with the expectations … School district employees do not operate in bad faith to put inappropriate materials in front of students.”

School Board member Lisa Miller addressed the issue of parental rights.

“If for any reason that you want to challenge a book– or add a book — to a series that your children are not exposed to, whether it’s portals and in a kid’s book or if it’s holidays your family may not celebrate, that’s your right to do,” Miller said. “And we hope you do your homework and your due diligence. It’s on the parents to inform themselves on how to take efforts on their behalf and their child’s. But each parent gets to make that decision. We don’t make that decision for you.”

Heid said if the board were to uphold banning the books CCDF finds objectionable, district staff would have to go through a review process and the purchase order would have to be amended.

The School Board voted 6-1 to go forward with the purchase, with Rick Nolte voting against it.  Nolte’s candidacy was supported by CCDF members.

During Tuesday night’s School Board meeting, the board also recognized Black History Month and 103-year-old Bartow resident and golf champion Herbert Dixon, who worked at Union Academy for many years.

According to National Geographic for Kids, Black History Month has its roots in “Negro History Week,” created by historian Carter Woodson in 1926 “in response to the lack of information on the accomplishments of Black people available to the public … Few people studied Black history and it wasn’t included in textbooks prior to the creation of Negro History Week.”

February was chosen because it was the birth month of Black abolitionist Frederick Douglass and President Abraham Lincoln, who wrote the Emancipation Proclamation freeing the slaves. President Gerald Ford extended the celebration to a month in 1976 to “honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”

CCDF Polk President Robert Goodman said he applauded the district’s recognition of Black History Month.

“But I want to remind you that black history should not be relegated to one month,” Goodman said. “We should celebrate Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King every single month. Black history is just American history. So, though I do like that we do Black History Month, I think American history needs to just be American history and it needs to not be so divisive.”

Earlier this month, as Floridians were preparing to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Gov. DeSantis announced that Florida public schools would not be offering a new Advanced Placement African-American History course, saying it violated HB7.

“This new course hasn’t been offered in our district, so there is no impact to PCPS at this time,” Kennedy told LkldNow.

Polk Education Association President Stephanie Yocum said at a press conference Wednesday that DeSantis says Florida is the freest state, but he is talking out of both sides of his mouth when he tries to marginalize people and remove them from the equation.

“It is a farce to maybe make his base feel better,” she said.

Luce did not return a call or email, asking if CCDF plans to file a formal complaint about the books being in schools countywide.

CCDF has objected to the following books:

  • “The Neptune Project” by Polly Holyoke
  • “Gorilla Dawn” by Gilla Lewis
  • “Be Light Like a Bird” by Monica Schroder
  • “Puritan Girl, Mohawk Girl” by John Putnam Demos and Harry N. Abrams
  • “Orphan Train” by Christina Baker Kline
  • “Roman Diary: The Journal of Iliona of Mytilini” by Richard Platt
  • “Maximilian Fly” by Angie Sage
  • “Dead Boy” by Laurel Gale
  • “Stamped (For Kids)” by Sonja Cherry-Paul
  • “Choose Justice” by Maribel Valdez Gonzalez
  • “Equality, Social Justice and Our Future” by Sabrina Adams
  • “The Racial Justice Movement” by Kara Laughlin
  • “Rise Up: How You can Join the Fight Against White Supremacy” by Crystal Fleming
  • “Athletes for Social Justice: Colin Kaepernick, Lebron James and More” by Dolores Andral
  • “Peace Activism” by Virginia Loh-Hagan

Here is a list of their objections to those books:

View a larger version

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Kimberly C. Moore

Kimberly C. Moore, who grew up in Lakeland, has been a print, broadcast and multimedia journalist for more than 30 years. Before coming to LkldNow in the spring of 2022, she was a reporter for four years with The Ledger, first covering Lakeland City Hall and then Polk County schools. She is the author of “Star Crossed: The Story of Astronaut Lisa Nowak," published by University Press of Florida. Reach her at kimberly@lkldnow.com or 863-272-9250.

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