Schools Policy for Checking Out Controversial Library Books Switches to Opt-Out Only

Superintendent Frederick Heid has decided to return to an all opt-out process for all library books in Polk County public school libraries, including 16 books some deemed pornographic or age inappropriate.

“The system we’ve implemented for this year allows parents to opt out of any books they choose,” said PCPS spokesman Kyle Kennedy. “The 16 books that were challenged last (school) year are highlighted in the new system, making it easy for families to opt out if they wish.”

Kennedy said the process the district developed over the summer for opting out is explained in a video on the district’s back-to-school guide at www.polkschoolsfl.com/backtoschool or below:

Heid had discussed at a July 26 work session both an opt-out process for library materials and a separate opt-in process for the 16 books, which touch on topics including transgender identity, homosexuality, child rape, underage sex, school shootings, racism, and, in two brief passages in one Toni Morrison book, beastiality.

Following complaints to Heid from several board members during and following the July 26 School Board work session and meeting, Heid moved back to the original school district policy that allows parents to opt out of any book or books they don’t want their child to read. Those board members included School Board Chairwoman Sara Beth Wyatt, School Board Vice-Chairwoman Lisa Miller, Sarah Fortney and Kay Fields. The board was not required to vote on the measure.

“A majority of the board members did not express support for an opt-in process,” PCPS spokesman Jason Geary said in a text to LkldNow this morning. “They made this known during their public comments during the work session on May 10.  Mr. Heid explored what both of these processes might look like to give the board more information, but their direction on this matter has been clear.  Therefore, an opt-out only process was finalized and is currently in place for parents/guardians to use if they wish.

A Brief History

Last year, Florida Citizens Alliance released a report on 58 books the group found in various public school libraries throughout the state that it deemed inappropriate and why. The report is downloadable as a PDF.

Florida Citizens Alliance and County Citizens Defending Freedom reported to the school district that 16 of the 58 books were found in PCPS libraries and complained that they “are age inappropriate and hypersexualize children, violating numerous Florida Statutes.”  

CCDF members met with Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd and Heid late last year to complain about the books. Judd recommended placing the controversial books behind the librarians’ desks and making them an opt-in selection.

The issue came to a boil in late January, when CCDF members told Heid that the school district could be in violation of state statutes that prohibit distribution of pornography or “material harmful” to minors and that librarians could face felony charges for each time one of these books was checked out.

The superintendent moved the morning of Jan. 25 to “quarantine” those books until they could be reviewed by two committees the school district formed for that purpose.

Committee members included educators, community stakeholders – including CCDF members — mental health experts, parents and high school students.

The committee members read each book and held public meetings to discuss them from March through May. The committees recommended keeping all the books on library shelves at appropriate age levels, with some slight changes to their grade-level/school-level placement. Heid then made the final decision on what grade levels the books should be kept.

The Books

The 16 books and the grade levels the superintendent approved them for are:

“PCPS is committed to empowering parents and guardians to make the decision about whether their children can access these or any other books in their school library,” the district’s website states. “The Library & Media Materials Opt-Out Process was created over the summer and gives parents and guardians a convenient way to see a list of all materials available through their child’s school library, and they can ‘opt out’ of any books that they find objectionable.”

District officials added that the opt-out feature “ensures that your child does not have access to any materials that you find objectionable” and it noted:

  • Parents and guardians will have two opportunities each year to complete the opt-out process. One opportunity takes place in August, and the other takes place in December.
  • If this process is not completed by the specified date, the system will default to allowing your child to have access to all media materials at their school.
  • If a student changes schools or is newly enrolled into the school district, their parents and guardians will have 10 business day (14 calendar days) to make their opt-out selections.
  • Parents and guardians should contact their school’s media staff or school administrators for any additional assistance.
  • Only custodial parents can complete the opt-out. If a parent has custodial rights and cannot see the book list, they will need to contact the school’s terminal operator for assistance linking their account.

According to a school district spreadsheet, the graphic (illustrated) novel “Drama,” about a middle school musical and the angst experienced over teen romances, had been checked out 527 times from more than 50 schools in the last two school years. “Thirteen Reasons Why” by Jay Asher, about teen suicide, had been checked out 70 times at more than a dozen schools.

But five of the books have not been checked out at all in the 2020-2021 and 2021-2022 school years: “It’s Perfectly Normal,” “Two Boys Kissing,” “Tricks,” “Almost Perfect,” and “The Vincent Boys.”

PCPS Superintendent Frederick Heid

PCPS libraries use a computer system called Destiny that allows parents to opt their children out of individual books. But many said the Destiny system was cumbersome and hard to use, so Heid had district staff work on a technology solution for that over the summer.

In May, CCDF founder and president Steve Maxwell wrote Heid a letter, urging for opt-in.

“History will judge you kindly for your wisdom and intelligence,” Maxwell wrote before quoting a Bible passage from the Book of Luke: “It would be better to be thrown into the sea with a millstone hung around your neck than to cause one of these little ones to fall into sin.”

CCDF members and supporters applauded the opt-in system for the 16 books when it was announced last month, calling it a win – even though they originally objected to the books being returned to shelves at all and threatened to sue.

“Thank you, Superintendent Heid, for listening to the parents’ voices and having the opt-in,” said Terry Clark, a CCDF “ambassador” and School Board candidate.

Kathy Bucklew, a CCDF member who served on one of the committees, also thanked Heid.

“I want to enjoin you as a public school system — let’s be a leader in the state of Florida and let’s request the state Dept of Education … create a book-rating system in the state of Florida (so) we don’t have to depend on overworked librarians,” Bucklew said. “There’s so many benefits to a book rating system.”

But Lake Region Senior High School English Teacher Joellen McPeak said she disagreed with having an opt-in system for the 16 books.

“I’m perfectly fine with opt-out — we’ve had opt-out all along,” she said during the July 26 School Board meeting.  “I think it sets a bad precedence to have opt-in only for certain books. It’s language for essentially banning … it burdens our media specialists and our teachers, especially. I have all 16 of those books because I wanted to be informed about all those books.  They’re in my classroom, but, obviously, I will follow procedure.”

Heid said Wednesday that they are providing guidance to those with classroom libraries like McPeak.

But some board members and members of the public have stated during meetings in the last few months that if, for instance, a child who is gay wanted to check out one of the 16 books that deals with that topic to help them understand what they are feeling and their parents object to homosexuality, that book would then be off limits to the child.

A post circulating on social media says teachers, at least in Sarasota County, are being directed not to have class libraries, not to accept donated books of any kind, not to order any Scholastic books, not to hold book fairs, not to give students gifts of books, and to obtain approval for anything to be read to students.

When asked if any of that were true for Polk County teachers or librarians, Heid texted, “No”.

Kimberly C. Moore is an award-winning reporter and a Lakeland native.  She can be reached at [email protected] or 863-272-9250.