As the Polk County School Board was ending its meeting Tuesday evening, Vice Chair Lisa Miller and Superintendent Frederick Heid sought to set the record straight about what they called disinformation regarding 16 library books that had been challenged as pornographic or age-inappropriate.
Conservative critics including members of the County Citizens Defending Freedom, the organization that lodged a complaint about 16 books found in some Polk school libraries, have said they were displeased after an opt-in process for the 16 books, which would require parental permission specifically for those titles, was removed as an option last week.
“I’d like to talk a little bit today about disinformation and what that does to a community and what I’ve experienced personally,” Miller began. She is running for re-election against Del Quary and Jill Sessions.
“It’s been significant that my 76-year-old parents have been harassed at home. I’ve been harassed in public by someone from Citizens for Freedom — or whatever the name of the group is — telling me that my son is not autistic, he is retarded. Using words like that. And I’m using it for my campaign.”
Miller’s 20-year-old son, Michael, has been diagnosed by doctors as profoundly non-verbal autistic.
“What is being used for campaigns is fodder about a policy that we already have — we have a policy,” Miller said about the opt-out policy. “If you are interested in books that belong to your children’s school, you go to the school and ask for a committee meeting hearing. It’s always been our policy. I follow the law. I follow the law.”
Miller held up a letter written by Indian River County Sheriff Eric Flowers and distributed to Indian River County School Board members on April 19 and to Polk County School Board members on May 10, the day they held a School Board meeting and a majority of members voiced their displeasure for an opt-in process, saying it is too restrictive on a child’s ability to select books from a library.
In the sheriff’s letter, Flowers explains that “our agency received a criminal complaint regarding alleged pornographic and/or obscene materials” in Indian River County Public Schools from the organization Moms For Liberty. Their complaint list contained 155 books; all 16 of the Polk County books are on that list.
According to the Indian River sheriff’s investigative report, an almost identical complaint was filed by individuals associated with Moms for Liberty in Flagler County in November 2021, about the same time complaints first surfaced in Polk County. Book challenges have been increasing throughout Florida and the United States in the last year.
“After a thorough review of the content by our Special Victims Unit Supervisor, who has the unfortunate task of dealing with sex crimes against children, we have determined that the totality of the circumstances do not allow us to make an arrest in this case,” Flowers wrote in a letter to his school board. “However, based upon this review, we do not feel that this content is appropriate for young children even though it does not rise to the level of a crime … Some of the content in these books is highly questionable and I certainly would not want my child to have access to it.”
Flowers also recommended that the Indian River County school system review its policy to allow for stricter oversight prior to books such as these being made available to children. Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd has shared the same sentiment.
Judd said Wednesday the Polk County Sheriff’s Office has not investigated the books, but has told CCDF members that the books do not rise to the level of pornography.
“I explained to them that not everything that was vile and nasty and inappropriate was legally obscene,” Judd said. “Depite my suggestion of opt-in, the School Board chose to go in a different direction. But that’s their decision; that’s not mine. We have not conducted a criminal investigation or a literary review or my office has not. And it’s not my responsibility to do the literary reviews.”
During the School Board meeting, Miller said she agreed with Sheriff Flowers’ conclusion.
“Much like me, he might not like what he reads in those books, but he understands it’s not pornography (or) breaking the law,” Miller said.
Miller then invited Heid to answer questions and accusations about “how much the Polk County School Board wants to engage our children into deviant & sexual behavior,” in the words of one email he received this week.
Heid pointed out that the books are not given to students, nor are they a part of PCPS curriculum or required reading for any class in the more than 150 schools in the district. They are available in some libraries.
Two books — “The Kite Runner” by Khaled Hosseini, which depicts a child rape, and “Beloved” by Toni Morrison, which discusses beastiality — are recommended readings for Advanced Placement English classes or college-level classes, supported through the College Board, Heid said. During the book review process, Heid recommended “The Kite Runner” and “Beloved” be kept in the 14 high schools or technical colleges from which they had been removed for review.
“We have always had and maintain the policy where parents can opt their children out of those reading materials and request an alternate reading assignment,” Heid said.
Four of the books were voted on by all members of each committee – including members of CCDF — to be returned to PCPS library shelves: “Drama” by Raina Telgemeier, “George” by Alex Gino, “Thirteen Reasons Why” by Jay Asher, and “Two Boys Kissing” by David Levithan.
“This is not something that we take lightly. And I believe that we’ve offered great opportunity that far exceeds what the state requires in any law, by parents and opt out,” Heid said, pointing out that the district is one year ahead of schedule in providing a searchable list of books for parents to research and opt out of, should they wish to.
The 16 books in question have been highlighted on the online list of books at the schools in which they are available in the library to make them easily viewable by parents.
“Some parents have contacted us very recently … and said, ‘I went to my child’s school and I don’t see any of the books highlighted that were challenged,’” Heid said. “That’s simply because none of those books exist in your child’s school. Now parents can choose to select other books. That’s why we created this process … to empower parents to make an informed decision.”
Heid also explained that the reproductive health book “It’s Perfectly Normal” by Robie Harris, with graphic illustrations of nude people and people engaged in sex, exists in only one Polk County Public School — Haines City High School – and it has not been checked out at all in the last two school years.
“It is the only book in existence in the entirety of the school district and it’s at the high school level and yet many people have referenced that book, because it’s … illustrated and they have assumed that that’s available to elementary age students. It is not,” Heid said.
Heid said CCDF members had taken their complaint to then-Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran in Tallahassee and were told the Florida Department of Education would not remove the books.
“I do believe that the commissioner also shared that his own children read most of the books as part of their studies,” Heid added. Efforts to reach Corcoran went unanswered Wednesday.
Parents who want to opt their child out of any book have until midnight tonight (Wednesday, Aug. 17) to do so. The next window to opt out is between Jan. 1 and Jan. 15, 2023.
“As of (Tuesday) afternoon, we’ve only had 42 parents opt out of the challenged books, with an estimated 116,000 students in Polk County public schools this year,” Heid said. “That equates to 0.036% of our families. And I know that you’re gonna argue as they, as we heard arguments initially, that a lot of our families are not engaged. And I would not disagree … But to assume that 99.6% of our families don’t care about their children’s education is a false narrative, and it’s disingenuous.”
Heid said Tuesday that the 16 books have not been challenged at any Polk County private, parochial or charter school, where said he knew the books resided because those schools utilize the same library book management system as PCPS.
“When I inquired with our complainants, who were petitioning for the removal of books, why these books were not being challenged, I was told, ‘That’s coming soon,’ and yet here we are, 10 months later, and there’s not been any movement or request to remove those books from those settings … Our public schools are not where many of the petitioners’ own children attend.”
Several board members have expressed their anger with CCDF and/or its members saying they and/or Polk County Public Schools want to hand out pornography to children. Robert Goodman, an administrator on the CCDF-run Facebook page “PCPS School Board Candidates (District 3,5,6, and 7),” posted a meme on August 3 of Sheriff Judd protecting children while Pennywise, the clown from the Stephen King novel “It,” tempts children with some of the novels and the phrase, “Meanwhile public schools grooming kids with pornographic content.” The two other administrators on the page are listed as Amanda Jade Hanson, “Works at County Citizens Defending Freedom and Macy’s” and the Facebook page “County Citizens Defending Freedom USA”.
Goodman spoke at Tuesday night’s School Board meeting and expressed his disappointment that an opt-in option for the 16 books was no longer available. He also advocated for a book-rating system, similar to a movie rating system that has been in place for 50 years.
“The backtracking is unfortunate and we’re going to be filing police reports against the board, the superintendent and anyone that is distributing the material in question because it violates the law and state statutes,” Goodman said. “Anyone distributing content that violates 827.012 will have a criminal complaint filed against them. Let me remind you, Governor DeSantis just removed a state attorney for not following the law and we are only asking you to follow the law. Nothing more. We will protect the children of Polk County, even if you won’t.”
Last Sunday, Goodman and CCDF USA Elections Division Leader Sarah Calamunci both made public posts to their Facebook pages that included photographs of 11 of the passages they say are explicit. They labeled the posts “WARNING- EXPLICIT CONTENT.” Florida Citizens Alliance, which is spearheading this effort, has also posted links to read the material, although those navigating to the page must affirm that they are 18 years old or older.
Neither The Ledger nor LkldNow have posted the passages.
Longtime teacher Bob Nickell spoke in support of Miller, thanking her, the board and Heid for supporting what the “overwhelming majority of residents” and parents in Polk County want.
“Miss Miller, I love your heart. I’m disgusted – disgusted – with the slurs that have been hurled at you,” Nickell said. “I also want to thank my fellow teachers and media specialists. We’ve been threatened but we stand tall. And if I could ask for just a few things this school year it would be: Stop yelling at us. Stop saying we’re grooming students, and stop saying we indoctrinate.”
Miller concluded her comments by asking CCDF members to work with the board and help get parents involved in their children’s education, including helping to educate them on the opt-out process. She also applauded the idea of a book-rating system, similar to a movie rating system.
“If you would like to change the law, I would love to help you work on a ratings system nationally. I think that’s a phenomenal idea. It does not exist. When you start banning books, you will ban all the books — the Bible in every kind of form is in our libraries. Watch them come for that because you’re trying to make a political statement,” Miller said.
A Texas school district this week removed “The Diary of Anne Frank” and the Bible as they review them after groups complained about them last school year.
As for Polk’s 16 books, Miller had a warning.
“These books are not available to elementary school students. This disinformation is going to get somebody hurt. So I’m asking, if you want to talk about the books, if you want to talk about our policy, that you speak with facts,” Miller said. “Because what I’m afraid of is disinformation to people who may become dangerous because what they believe is we’re here to hurt children. And that is the saddest thing I’ve ever seen.”
Kimberly C. Moore is an award-winning reporter and a Lakeland native. She can be reached at [email protected] or 863-272-9250.