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Florida school district orders librarians to purge all books with LGBTQ characters
Librarians in public schools in Charlotte County, Florida, were instructed by the school district superintendent to remove all books with LGBTQ characters or themes from school and classroom libraries.
The guidance by Charlotte County Superintendent Mark Vianello and the school board's attorney, Michael McKinley, was obtained by the Florida Freedom to Read Project (FFTRP) through a public records request and shared with Popular Information. FFTRP requested "electronic records of district and school decisions regarding classroom and library materials." In response, FFTRP received a document memorializing a July 24 conversation between Vianello and district librarians, known in Florida as media specialists.
A spokesperson for the school district did not dispute the accuracy of the document but emphasized it was a summary, not a verbatim transcript.
Charlotte County school librarians sought guidance from the school district about how to apply an expansion of the Florida Parental Rights in Education Act, better known as the "Don't Say Gay" law, to all grades. "Are we removing books from any school or media center, Prek-12 if a character has, for example, two mothers or because there is a gay best friend or a main character is gay?" the librarians asked, according to the document. Vianello and McKinely told the librarians, "Yes."
The guidance made clear that all books with LGBTQ characters are to be removed even if the book contained no sexually explicit content. The librarians asked if they could retain books in school and classroom libraries with LGBTQ characters "as long as they do not have explicit sex scenes or sexual descriptions and are not approaching 'how to' manuals for how to be an LGBTQ+ person." The guidance provided by Vianello and McKinely was: "No. Books with LBGTQ+ characters are not to be included in classroom libraries or school library media centers."
Vianello and McKinley also advised teachers must ensure that books with LGBTQ characters and themes do not enter the classroom, even if they are self-selected by students for silent reading. According to Vianello and McKinley, books with "[t]hese characters and themes cannot exist."
The librarians were seeking guidance on how to interpret a revised version of The Principles of Professional Conduct for the Education Profession in Florida. The revised rules, issued by the Florida Department of Education earlier this year, expanded the restrictions imposed by the"Don't Say Gay" law. According to revised Rule 6A-10.081, educators in Florida "[s]hall not intentionally provide classroom instruction to students in prekindergarten through grade 8 on sexual orientation or gender identity." (A similar provision was included in a law Governor Ron DeSantis (R) signed in May.) The revised rule also extends that prohibition through grade 12, except where explicitly required by state standards or as part of "a reproductive health course or health lesson for which a student’s parent has the option to have his or her student not attend."
Governor Ron DeSantis (R) has insisted that allegations that his policies, including the "Don't Say Gay" law, are being used to ban a wide range of books is a "hoax." DeSantis claimed that the only books being removed from Florida libraries are "pornographic and inappropriate materials that have been snuck into our classrooms and libraries to sexualize our students violate our state education standards." But in Charlotte County, DeSantis' policies are being used to justify purging all books with LGBTQ characters, even if there is no sexual content.
In response to a request for comment, the spokesperson for Charlotte County Schools told Popular Information that books with LGBTQ characters were removed from libraries because “there are elementary schools that utilize their school library media center as classrooms… [for] elective courses that our students are officially scheduled into and attend on a regular basis.” Therefore, the library “is considered a classroom setting.” As a result, “our school board attorney advises that we do not make books with these themes available in media centers that serve as classrooms since this would be considered ‘classroom instruction’ and such instruction and/or availability of these themes may not occur in PreK- grade 8.”
The problem with banning all books with LGBTQ characters
There are serious legal issues with banning all books with LGBTQ characters.
In June, the authors of the children's book And Tango Makes Three, and several students sued the Lake County School Board, the Florida Department of Education, and other state officials for removing the book from K-3 library shelves. And Tango Makes Three is the true story of two male Penguins, Roy and Silo, who lived in the Central Park Zoo and raised an adopted chick. It has no sexual content. The lawsuit contends that the removal of And Tango Makes Three violates student rights under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, and by "discriminating based on content and viewpoint, it infringes the authors’ right to freedom of expression."
In response, the Lake County School Board filed an affidavit on July 13, 2023, from its superintendent, Diane Kornegay. She stated that, on June 21, 2023, she received guidance from the Florida Department of Education that the "age restriction on sexual orientation and gender identity does not apply to library books." The guidance included a legal memorandum by the Florida Attorney General filed in a separate case challenging the "Don't Say Gay" law, which contends that the law "does not even arguably restrict library books."
As a result, And Tango Makes Three was returned to the shelves in Lake County.
The Florida Department of Education has been repeatedly asked to clarify the application of "Don't Say Gay" and other laws and regulations restricting LGBTQ instruction to library books. But it has refused to do so, despite the urging of FFTRP and others.
“Every child deserves to have their lives reflected in the books available in their public school classroom or library,” Stephana Ferrell, co-founder of the FFTRP told Popular Information. “The Florida Department of Education was informed of Charlotte County’s overreaction to the law and state rule over two weeks ago, and has not acted to correct it. Public school families in Florida deserve better. We cannot tolerate this discriminatory exclusion.”
The result of the Department of Education’s inaction has been chaos. And Tango Makes Three remains banned in Escambia County and elsewhere. While Charlotte County is the only school district known to have a formal ban on all books with LGBTQ characters, other Florida school districts have the same policy in practice.
In the Broward County School District, the sixth-largest school district in the country, nearly half of the books that have been removed or restricted feature LGBTQ themes. One of the books banned from all school libraries is the children’s book A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo, a fictional story about former Vice President Mike Pence’s family bunny. In the story, Marlon Bundo falls in love with another bunny named Wesley, and the two decide to get married. The book does not contain any sexual or explicit content whatsoever. The Broward County School District ordered that all school libraries remove Bundo, because it contained “gender identity content.”
The Broward County School District told Popular Information that it was aware of the state's position in the Lake County lawsuit. But, as of last month, Bundo remained unavailable in Broward County schools.
A survey of Florida school districts by Popular Information revealed that at least 16 school districts in Florida have banned books with LGBTQ characters.
UPDATE (9/26, 3:29 PM): A spokesperson for the Charlotte County School District sent this additional statement: “Books featuring LGBTQ characters are accessible in the media center for grades 9-12. While they may not be utilized for classroom instruction, these books are available for individual study and can be borrowed by students. The document… served as a training resource, and the discussion accompanying it provided further guidance to educators.”