Polk Schools Taking Applications for Book Review Committees

Applications are now available for parents, community members and students who want to be part of the two committees reviewing 16 books that were removed from Polk public school library shelves recently.

School Superintendent Frederick Heid explained Tuesday that he decided “to temporarily pause the distribution of the books” after a “stakeholder group” alleged they violate state laws regarding obscenity and distribution of harmful material to minors. He said he took countywide action on the books to pre-empt the possibility of seeing school personnel charged with a felony.

That stakeholder group is County Citizens Defending Freedom, which claims the books are “explicit and inappropriate for minors.” Opponents of removing the books point out that many of the books on the list deal with LGBTQ issues or racial inequities.

The form to apply to participate in the committees that will review the books can be found online. Deadline to submit is Sunday.

Committee members will have up to two weeks to read up to eight of the books in totality, and the review process is expected to take 13 weeks.

Each committee will review eight books. News Channel 8 reported that the members of each will include “a chief academic officer/curriculum specialist, two library/media specialists, two teachers, two parents, Florida Association for media in Florida, a NAACP member, an Equality Florida member, a Concerned Citizen of Polk member, a County Citizen Defending Freedom member, two student support service members – which are counselors, psychologists or social workers, a child psychology/child development specialist, two secondary students with parent approval and a facilitator.”

Meetings of the committee will be open to the public, and videos of the meeting will be posted publicly, Heid said. Public comments will not be allowed during the meetings. (View video of the book discussion at Tuesday’s School Board work session here or at the end of this article.)

Polk County Public Schools had already received nearly 100 applications for the committee from school staff members as of Tuesday morning, Heid said.

The books that will be reviewed by the committee include:

A public records request by former School Board member Billy Townsend revealed that five of the books have not been checked out from any Polk school in the last two years. Another eight had been checked out seven times or fewer countywide during that period.

The three books on the list that had been checked out most often during the last two years

Of the remaining three, only two had been checked out in large numbers:

  • Drama by Raina Telgemeier, available at 35 libraries and checked out 527 times in the last two years. 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, available at 25 libraries and checked out 70 times in the last two years. 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.

Townsend’s chart:

Superintendent Heid noted the low checkout rates of many of the books at Tuesday’s School Board work session and said, “If these are the most concerning books and they’re not being checked out, is there justification in the argument that somehow these books are exposing students to content that basically flies in the face of family values and other things?”

According to reporting from News Channel 8, School Board member Sarah Fortney focused on the few books that were widely circulated: “It’s kind of unfortunate that these titles are going to be not accessible even though they have not been heavily checked out, especially given the increase in popularity lately.”

School Board member Lynn Wilson said he read some passages that were pointed out to him and found them “horrific,” “dehumanizing” and “vile.”

“I’m not sure why we would want to normalize forcible rape and bestiality,” he said. “That’s something we could use as a standard – if we can’t take a passage out of a book and put it on our website, maybe we shouldn’t have it in our library.”

But the books must be judged in totality and in historical context, not just on selected passages, Polk Education Association President Stephanie Yocum told News Channel 8’s Staci DaSilva: “I’m not a fortune teller but I just don’t see many of these titles being banned because you have to look at them in the totality. You have to look at them in context.”

Book discussion at Tuesday’s Polk School Board workshop: