Florida teachers told to remove books from classroom libraries or risk felony prosecution
Teachers in Manatee County, Florida, are being told to make their classroom libraries — and any other "unvetted" book — inaccessible to students, or risk felony prosecution. The new policy is part of an effort to comply with new laws and regulations championed by Governor Ron DeSantis (R). It is based on the premise, promoted by right-wing advocacy groups, that teachers and librarians are using books to "groom" students or indoctrinate them with leftist ideologies.
Kevin Chapman, the Chief of Staff for the Manatee County School District, told Popular Information that the policy was communicated to principals in a meeting last Wednesday. Individual schools are now in the process of informing teachers and other staff.
Teachers in Manatee County lamented the news on social media. "My heart is broken for Florida students today as I am forced to pack up my classroom library," one Manatee teacher wrote on Facebook.
Another Manatee teacher called the directive "a travesty to education" that interfered with efforts to "connect with books and develop [a] love of lifelong learning."
In an interview with Popular Information, Chapman said that the policy was put into place last week in response to HB 1467, which was signed into law by DeSantis last March. That law established that teachers could not be trusted to select books appropriate for their students. Instead, the law requires:
Each book made available to students through a school district library media center or included in a recommended or assigned school or grade-level reading list must be selected by a school district employee who holds a valid educational media specialist certificate, regardless of whether the book is purchased, donated, or otherwise made available to students.
In Florida, school librarians are called "media specialists" and hold media specialist certificates. A rule passed by the Florida Department of Education last week states that a "library media center" includes any books made available to students, including in classrooms. This means that classroom libraries that are curated by teachers, not librarians, are now illegal.
The law requires that all library books selected be:
1. Free of pornography and material prohibited under s. 847.012.
2. Suited to student needs and their ability to comprehend the material presented.
3. Appropriate for the grade level and age group for which the materials are used or made available
Chapman says that school principals in Manatee County were told Wednesday that any staff member violating these rules by providing materials "harmful to minors" could be prosecuted for "a felony of the third degree." Therefore, teachers must make their classroom libraries inaccessible to students until they can establish that each book has been approved by a librarian.
In response to the policy, some teachers packed up their classroom libraries. Others covered up the books students are no longer allowed to read with construction paper.
Restoring student access to classroom libraries is a complex process. First, someone must cross-check each book in their classroom library with the district library catalog. If the book is available in the district libraries, that means it was approved by a media specialist and can be made available to students again. But any book not currently held in the district libraries must be individually evaluated and approved by a librarian.
And that's just the beginning. Materials prepared for an upcoming Manatee County School Board meeting include a 21-point list of procedures to ensure that classroom libraries comply with the new rules.
As a result, one Manatee teacher reported being forced to take Sneezy the Snowman and Dragons Love Tacos off the shelves pending review. Other teachers, fearing criminal liability, are telling students not to bring in "unvetted" books from home:
Chapman said he was not aware of teachers being told specifically to prohibit students from bringing books from home but, as a policy, "all materials we use in a classroom are all state approved."
One high school teacher in Manatee County told Popular Information that they would not comply with the new policy. The teacher has spent the year carefully curating books donated by parents or sourced from their personal collection. "I'm not taking any books out of my room," the teacher said. "I absolutely refuse." The teacher spoke on the condition of anonymity, fearing that speaking out about the policy could put their job at risk.
Librarians in Manatee County are now expected to review thousands of books in classroom libraries to ensure compliance with the new law. Manatee County has 64 public schools and 3,000 teachers, many of whom maintain classroom libraries. Chapman said that every school in Manatee County has a media specialist but that the process could take a while because it is "one person" and "they are human." Any book approved for K-5 students must also be included on a publicly available list.
Similar policies will be implemented in schools across Florida. Some Florida schools do not have a media specialist, making the process even more cumbersome.
That review must also be consistent with a complex training, which was heavily influenced by right-wing groups like Moms For Liberty and approved by the Florida Department of Education just last week. Any mistake by a librarian or others could result in criminal prosecution. This process must be repeated for any book brought into the school on an ongoing basis. But librarians and teachers are not being provided with any additional compensation for the extra work.
Stephana Ferrell, a co-founder of the Florida Freedom to Read Project, said the new policy followed "a pattern of fear-based decisions that prioritize staying in good favor with the Governor over doing the right thing for our students." Ferrell said she blamed "the Florida Board of Education that passed this rule change last Wednesday without an ounce of consideration for its impact." Now, "thousands of students are without classroom access to fun and engaging literature."
Ironically, Manatee County is making thousands of books inaccessible to students just in time to celebrate "Literacy Week" in Florida, which runs from January 23 to 27. Only about 50% of students in Manatee County are reading at grade level.
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"Err on the side of caution"
Popular Information asked Chapman if Manatee County librarians and teachers were expected to remove books that violated the Parental Rights In Education Act, known by critics as "Don't Say Gay" or the Stop WOKE Act, which limits classroom discussion of racial issues. Chapman did not answer the question directly, saying only that librarians are expected to apply the "specialized training for media center specialists" approved last week by the Florida Department of Education. That training, Chapman says, includes "new definitions of inappropriate material."
The Parental Rights In Education Act prohibits all instruction on "sexual orientation or gender identity" in K-3 classrooms and instruction in other grades that is "not age appropriate or developmentally appropriate." But the law applies only to "[c]lassroom instruction by school personnel or third parties" — not library books. Similarly, the Stop WOKE Act is limited to classroom instruction.
The teacher training approved by the Florida Department of Education, however, does not inform librarians that the Parental Rights in Education Act and Stop WOKE ACT do not apply to library books. Rather, librarians are told: "There is some overlap between the selection criteria for instructional and library materials." One slide says that library books and instructional materials cannot include "unsolicited theories that may lead to student indoctrination."
A subsequent slide provides a list of "unsolicited theories that may lead to student indoctrination," which includes information about "sexual orientation or gender identity." It also includes a variety of topics related to race, including "Critical Race Theory" and material that might make someone feel "guilt, anguish, or other forms of psychological distress" as a result of their race. The training instructs librarians to "err on the side of caution."
As Popular Information reported earlier this month, Manatee County schools have already removed several books from school libraries because they contain LGBTQ characters or themes.
This interpretation of the law runs directly counter to the arguments the DeSantis administration is making in court. In federal court filings, lawyers representing DeSantis insist that the Parental Rights in Education Act does not apply to library books. Nevertheless, the DeSantis administration, through its media specialist training, is encouraging a much more expansive interpretation of the law.