Polk County Public Schools Superintendent Frederick Heid is asking teachers throughout the school district to review the materials in their classroom libraries to ensure that every book on their shelves is approved by the district and is one of 303,000 titles on the district’s list.
But some teachers are simply packing up their books and bringing them home or giving them away to colleagues.
About a month ago, Heid sent an email out to all teachers, asking them to comply with new legislation, specifically HB 1467, which deals with the review, purchase, and scrutiny of all instructional materials used in public schools, along with the training of who is responsible for that and, thus, who can be held accountable. All instructional material within a school, including teachers’ classroom libraries, now faces scrutiny.
“We agree that classroom libraries help facilitate a print-rich environment and provide students with additional access to books,” Heid wrote to teachers in the April 3 email. “To ensure that the district is complying with this legislation, we are asking teachers to evaluate the books within their classroom library to verify they are student age and content appropriate.”
On Friday, during in-service teacher training, a video was shown to all teachers to update them, including training on the Destiny system, which houses the titles of all books at the elementary, middle and high school levels. Teachers in middle school can use books from kindergarten through eighth grade, while high school teachers can use any book in the PCPS, from kindergarten through 12th grade. However, elementary school teachers can only use books at the elementary level.
“You’ll be released to go back to your classroom so that you can work use that time to start filtering so your books,” Heid said in Friday afternoon’s video. “Understand that no one expects you to have every single book reviewed by the beginning of the school year. I don’t think that that’s possible. I don’t think that’s as a respectful way for us to approach this, quite frankly, but we are asking you that you prioritize your reading materials.”
Local battle over books
Last year, the ultra-conservative group County Citizens Defending Freedom filed complaints about 16 books, calling them pornographic or saying they indoctrinated children into the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer life. After a months-long review process by committees made up of teachers, parents, counselors, students and CCDF members, all of the books were returned to the libraries at age-appropriate levels.
Among those allowed back into the classroom: “I am Jazz,” by Jessica Herthel and Jazz Jennings about a transgender child ; “Nineteen Minutes,” by Jodi Piccoult about a mass school shooting that also includes passages of teenaged sex; “Beloved,” by Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison about runaway slaves, which also includes several sentences about beastiality.
The legislature last year passed HB 1557, which prohibited elementary school teachers from discussing sexual orientation with students. This year, the bill was expanded to all grade levels.
In his video last Friday, Heid made a veiled reference to the legislation.
“We all know what content and what themes or topics are creating the concern amongst our parents, amongst our community members and amongst the legislature,” Heid said. “As a result, focus on those. Focus on those as you review your materials and anything that you may find questionable. Start with those.”
There is a review process for books in teachers’ classroom libraries that are not found in the Destiny system. A media specialist, who underwent Legislature-required training back in March, will review the book to ensure it is age-appropriate, not pornographic, doesn’t contain LGBTQ material, and isn’t part of a curriculum involving Critical Race Theory – a college-level course that teaches about the systemic racism in American culture, banking, business, and politics.
Heid said he understands that some teachers have dozens or even hundreds of books in their classrooms available for students and that the process will take time.
“Please know also that we are exploring and currently in discussion about bringing or providing additional time and opportunities throughout the summer for staff to come in,” Heid said. “It would be a paid opportunity, obviously.”
He also added that he is not asking teachers to cover up or remove books now.
But some teachers did just that this week.
Teachers express frustration and sadness
Rhonda Milstead Rice teaches reading at Sleepy Hill Middle School. She said she had had to remove books her students love because they are not in the system.
“I had a book titled ‘Black Heroes.’ It had MLK, Rosa Parks, and many others in it, but I had to remove it because it was not in our system,” Milstead Rice wrote in a Facebook post. “My 6th graders, who loved reading the book and would rather write about one of those heroes than read any other book, were very sad it was gone.”
Katie Surrency, who most recently taught at Kathleen Middle School, decided to leave the profession, in part, because of all the mandates coming down from Tallahassee.
“I didn’t take any books into my classroom this year and kept them all at home,” Surrency wrote on Facebook. “I just had a coworker come and take all my books in bins for their classroom library since I quit last month.”
In a message with LkldNow, Surrency said she has taught English Language Arts, Math, Science and Social Studies. She most recently taught ELA at Kathleen Middle School.
“The stress of the school I was at and the current environment/situation with the state has put the teaching profession under,” Surrency wrote. “I needed something with less stress. I’ve also got autoimmune health issues and working a remote job with less stress has been so much better for me health-wise.”
Her less stressful job is working with insurance denials and appeals at a local healthcare facility.
One teacher said on Facebook that he simply gave his library away to his students, rather than remove them from his classroom.
Anita Carson had been a science teacher at Lake Alfred Polytech Academy, a charter school for 6th-8th graders. She is now the statewide community coordinator for Equality Florida, a civil rights organization for Florida’s LGBTQ community.
“This is the county complying with new state laws,” Carson wrote on Facebook. “I know it’s a (lot) of work, but I’m really hoping teachers will submit their books to the district and make the district say no. Then we have actual proof that they’re banning books. Right now it’s more of self-censorship and it’s much harder to get out there to people what’s happening. Especially if you can challenge books that are about diverse stories of people.”
Carson noted that the district has created this new policy in order to comply with the law.
“But the district is now creating policies to limit their liability, rather than doing the least needed to be compliant,” Carson wrote.
Ann Kisner, a former district social worker, is alarmed at what she deems censorship on the part of the state government.
“They’re trying to control the narrative of what we educate. It’s exactly what the Reds in China do – go after the children. It’s the same as fascism,” Kisner said in a Facebook post. “Where is the federal government to regulate our crazy state?? This has to be discriminatory and against the law.”
Teachers have until the start of the 2023-2024 school year to complete their classroom review of materials.
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