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Florida school board bans three books at the request of allegedly racist and homophobic teacher
This week, the school board in Escambia County, Florida, banned three books from public schools at the request of Vicki Baggett, a high school English teacher accused by numerous students of being openly racist and homophobic in class. In each case, the Escambia County school board sided with Baggett over the recommendation of committees comprised of teachers, administrators, librarians, parents, and community members.
One of the books banned by the Escambia County school board is And Tango Makes Three. The book is the true story of two male Penguins, Roy and Silo, who lived in the Central Park Zoo. The pair build a nest together and raise an adopted child, Tango. There is no sexual content in the book.
In a challenge form submitted to the school district last August, Baggett said the book promoted the "LGBTQ agenda using penguins." Baggett said she believes the purpose of the book is "indoctrination" and that it was inappropriate for all grade levels.
In a December 2022 interview with Popular Information, Baggett said she objected to And Tango Makes Three because it exposes students to "alternate sexual ideologies" and contains "sexual innuendo." Baggett also said she was concerned "a second grader would read this book, and that idea would pop into the second grader's mind… that these are two people of the same sex that love each other."
Last month, Popular Information reported that former and current students accused Baggett of being openly homophobic in class. For example, Baggett allegedly told a 10th-grade student that her sister, who had a girlfriend, was "faking being a lesbian for attention" because "nobody's born that way."
The student targeted by Baggett's commentary later confirmed the story and said that Baggett made similar comments to her directly. According to the former student, whose name is being withheld by Popular Information due to the nature of the incident, Baggett "told me I was only gay because I hadn't found the right man." Baggett also allegedly made inappropriate comments about the former student's hair.
In September 2019, a parent emailed Northview High School principal Michael Sherrill objecting to Baggett's classroom conduct. The email stated that Baggett "has expressed her utter distaste for homosexuals to her students." According to the parent, Baggett "stated she thinks homosexuals are DUMB/STUPID for wearing the rainbow and pink colors because, according to Mrs. Baggett, that is the way that Hitler marked homosexual males during the Holocaust." (The pink triangle was used by Nazis but has been reclaimed by the LGBTQ community as a symbol of pride.) The parent, who shared the email on the condition of anonymity, said that their concerns were dismissed by Sherrill, who said that Baggett was "a good person."
On January 5, a materials review committee — which included a media specialist, an administrator, an elementary teacher, an elementary parent, and a community member — voted 5 to 0 to keep And Tango Makes Three in Escambia County school libraries. "This story does not have any offensive sexual behavior," the committee wrote. "Having two same-sex parents is not considered abnormal in our society. Many of the students in our district have same-sex parents."
The committee also noted that the DeSantis administration, in a legal filing, asserted that the Parental Rights in Education Act (also known as "Don't Say Gay") applied only to "classroom instruction" and does not prohibit "incidental references in literature to a gay or transgender person or to a same-sex couple." Baggett appealed the decision on January 20, arguing that it was imperative to ban And Tango Makes Three to protect students' "innocence until they are more mature."
In advance of Monday's board meeting, there were seven public comments submitted to the board about And Tango Makes Three. All seven encouraged the board to keep the book in Escambia County schools.
Nevertheless, the Escambia County school board voted 3 to 2 to ban And Tango Makes Three from public schools. “The fascination is still on those two male penguins," school board member David Williams said. "So I’ll be voting to remove the book from our libraries.”
"I am currently embarrassed to be a student in Escambia County"
The school board also voted to ban All Boys Aren't Blue, a young adult book about growing up black and gay. The book was available in some Escambia County high schools. Baggett challenged the book last August, citing "extreme sexual content," "disturbing scenes," and "LGBTQ content."
The book does include some explicit scenes, including descriptions of consensual sex and sexual assault. The materials review committee, however, voted 5-0 to keep the book in Escambia County high school libraries. Here is how the committee explained its decision:
It is expressly written so others in similar circumstances will be able to earn from his experiences and hopefully have an easier time with it. The book details the importance of family and how the love of family provides a strong foundation and support through life’s challenges. As a male who is black and gay, the author emphasizes that having that strong familial support is what can get any young person through any of life’s challenges, especially those that he personally encountered.
After listening to hours of debate, Ella Jane Hoffmaster, a high school senior, said she was "embarrassed to be a student in Escambia County tonight." Hoffmaster said that, as a child, "I loved the book Junie B. Jones. I loved it because Junie B. looked like me. She had red hair, and she had similar personality traits as me." Hoffmaster argued that black and LGBTQ students deserve the same kind of representation in school library books.
Rick Branch, the minister of Music at First United Methodist Church, shared a similar message. "I am a white, Anglo-Saxon, cisgender, Protestant, Christian male. I can find myself reflected in society everywhere," Branch said. "But for this book ("All Boys Aren't Blue") — Black, queer, youth — they can’t find that everywhere."
The school board, however, was not persuaded by these arguments and banned the book, siding with Baggett.
"The school board faces civil liability for removing the books"
Another book banned by the Escambia County school board this week, at Baggett's request, is When Aidan Became a Brother — a story about a trans boy. The book was challenged in September by Baggett, who claimed the purpose was "indoctrination of LGBTQ."
The materials review committee voted 4 to 1 to keep When Aidan Became a Brother in elementary, middle, and high school libraries. "It does show an underrepresented population, one who is often afraid to share their experiences," the committee wrote. "Whether you agree or not, Aidan and people like him are still worthy of respect."
Ellen Odom, the general counsel to the Escambia County school board, "cautioned that the bans open up the board to legal challenges." Sara Latshaw of the Florida ACLU, who attended the meeting, agreed. Latshaw said that the "school board faces civil liability" for removing books like When Aidan Became a Brother because it "cannot engage in viewpoint discrimination." Latshaw explained that the board "cannot remove a book from the library simply because it has a transgender character."
Despite facing serious accusations of homophobia and racism, Baggett is still able to persuade the school board to take her side. This has encouraged Baggett to challenge more books. Baggett challenged 11 additional books on February 9, 2023. To date, Baggett has challenged more than 160 titles.