Polk County Schools Removes Books from Libraries for Review After Group Complains About Them

Removed books

Polk County Public Schools Superintendent Frederick Heid has asked middle and high school librarians to remove 16 books from school media center shelves for a review after receiving complaints about the books from the activist group County Citizens Defending Freedom.

“While it is not the role of my office to approve/evaluate instructional or resource materials at that level, I do have an obligation to review any allegation that a crime is being or has been committed,” Heid wrote in an email sent Monday evening. “It is also my obligation to provide safeguards to protect our employees.” Heid added the district is taking several steps to “address [the] issue honestly, fairly, and transparently.”

Most of the books targeted by the group deal with racism or LGBTQ+ characters and themes, a librarian who reviewed the list said. The books had been housed in media centers across the district including in high schools, middle schools and a few elementary schools. (See a list here or at the end of this article.)

Three removed books

The books on the list that are housed in the most Polk school locations are:

  • Drama by Raina Telgemeier: 35 locations. The graphic novel is a coming-of-age story involving the crew of a middle school musical. It has won both praise and criticism for its portrayal of LGBTQ people.
  • Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher: 25 locations. The novel deals with the suicide of a high school freshman. was a New York Times bestseller and spawned a Netflix series. Criticisms have involved portrayals of a sexual assault and failure to address mental illness as a cause of suicide.
  • The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison: 16 locations. It involves an African-American girl growing up during the Depression. Attempts to ban the book have involved its topics of racism, incest and child molestation.
  • The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini: 14 locations. The bestselling novel, which was adapted for film and stage, involves tumult in Aghanistan in the late 20th Century. Challenges to the book’s placement in libraries have involved offensive language, sexual content and age suitability. 
  • Beloved by Toni Morrison: 13 locations. The novel, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1988, deals with a family of former slaves following the Civil War. Attempts to ban it have involved its references to bestiality, infanticide, sex, and violence.

Other books that have been temporarily removed include:

  • “Two Boys Kissing” by David Levithan
  • “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” by Jonathan Safran Foer
  •  “The Vincent Boys” by Abbi Glines
  • “It’s Perfectly Normal” by Robert Harris, illustrated by Michael Emberley
  • “Real Live Boyfriends” by E. Lockhart
  • “George” by Alex Gino
  • “I am Jazz” by Jessica Herthel and Jazz Jennings
  • “Nineteen Minutes” by Jodi Picoult
  • “More Happy Than Not” by Adam Silvera
  • “Tricks” by Ellen Hopkins
  • Almost Perfect” by Brian Katcher

In the email, Heid said a “stakeholder group” — later identified as County Citizens Defending Freedom — requested the books be removed from the shelves because the group’s members allege they contain material harmful to minors which would violate Florida statute 847.012, which involves distribution of “harmful materials” to minors.

The statute reads, in part, “Any book, pamphlet, magazine, printed matter however reproduced, or sound recording, that contains any matter … [with ] explicit and detailed verbal descriptions or narrative accounts of sexual excitement, or sexual conduct and that is harmful to minors” is prohibited from being distributed to minors; those accused of violating the statute could face a felony in the third degree.

“It is important to note that these 16 books have not been censored or banned at this time. They have been removed so a thorough, thoughtful review of their content can take place,” said Jason Geary, spokesman for Polk County Public Schools, adding that these books will be not be available to students while under review.

Geary mentioned the district has a process that outlines the manner in which books or other curriculum material can be challenged by a parent or community member. He said this process typically involves a review committee comprised of district curriculum staff, literacy/language arts staff, media specialists, parents and community members and is conducted at the individual school level. Due to the books being housed at several high school media centers across the district, he said this review would be conducted at the district level.

“PCPS is committed to the safety and wellbeing of children as well as the freedom of expression, “ Geary said.

One school media specialist said typically the books aren’t removed from the shelves during the review. The person called the situation “frustrating” and “incredibly concerning,” fearing this could make it easier to ban books in libraries. The media specialist said they wouldn’t consider any of the books on the list to be obscene.

LkldNow has reached out to two local officials with literacy and school media organizations for comment but has not heard back yet.

In his email, Heid mentioned two district-level committees will be developed and will include district staff, colleges/universities, faith-based organizations, public libraries, and parents.

Geary mentioned members of the NAACP and other organizations would be invited to participate as well as the district’s senior director of equity and diversity management to ensure the committees are reflective of the county’s varied demographics.

The committees members will be required to read each book, complete a checklist outlined by district policy, and meet and discuss their findings and make a recommendation to the superintendent. Heid said he would then bring the recommendation to the School Board.

Geary said there isn’t a set deadline for the when the review will be completed.

According to its LinkedIn profile, County Citizens Defending Freedom is a non-profit based in Lakeland with the mission of “[providing] the tools and support needed to empower citizens to defend their Constitutional rights [and] defend the freedoms that America’s Founding Fathers established.” The group’s Facebook page states, “As patriots have done throughout America’s history, CCDF-USA intends to support and champion American citizens whose freedom and liberty have been breached.”

The group’s members pushed the School Board to get rid of its former mask mandate, questioned why the district includes anus and bladder in its reproductive health curriculum, and have requested to inspect county election equipment and to audit its programs, The Ledger has reported.

Scrutiny of school books has become a hot topic in the current session of the Florida Legislature. On Tuesday, the Senate Education Committee approved a Republican-backed bill in a 6-3 party-line vote to give the public more input into selecting school materials and requiring elementary schools to publish a searchable list of all books in media centers and on class reading lists.

Nationally, schools are reporting a rise in the number of attempts to ban books, Education Week reported recently. The most frequent targets are books with LGBTQ characters or issues, sex and sexuality, critical race theory, race, racial inequities, gender and non-traditional family structures.

More on this story: The Ledger

Polk Schools’ list of books and the schools where they were available before being removed: