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Meet the Florida English teacher trying to ban 150 books from school libraries
When Wilma Rudolph Played Basketball is a book about the childhood of Wilma Rudolph, a legendary sprinter who won three gold medals at the 1960 Olympic games in Rome. The book, which is 32 pages long, is geared toward readers in elementary school.
The story focuses on Rudolph's childhood and the obstacles she had to overcome to achieve success. Rudolph, for example, had polio as a child and was forced to wear a leg brace. She was told by a doctor that she would never be able to walk without the brace. But Rudolph was determined.
As a Black child in the American South, Rudolph also faced racial discrimination and segregation. But Rudolph overcame both her physical limitations and societal prejudice to become a world-champion sprinter.
It is a wholesome and inspirational story. But When Wilma Rudolph Played Basketball is one of nearly 150 books that Vicki Baggett, a high school English teacher, is seeking to ban from school libraries in Escambia County, Florida. According to a challenge form submitted by Baggett on August 24, the purpose of When Wilma Rudolph Played Basketball is "race-baiting," and the book is not appropriate for any student.
In an interview with Popular Information, Baggett said the book "trashes and puts down those who are not black." She describes the book, which is a true story of Rudolph's experience, as "very anti-white."
At one point in the book, Rudolph reflects on how hard her mother worked as a maid for a white family. "There is something not right about this," Rudolph said. "White folks got all the luxury, and we black folks got the dirty work." This reflected the reality of life in Tennessee in the 1940s.
Baggett didn't dispute the book was accurate but insisted it would make white students "feel uncomfortable" because "they are being white-shamed." She said the book was inappropriate because "not all whites treated blacks like this." Baggett added that "not all blacks do drug crimes, like a lot of people say."
Baggett said she challenged the book because she believed it violated the Stop WOKE Act, legislation pushed by Governor Ron DeSantis (R) and signed into law in April 2022. The legislation, among other things, prohibits instructing students that they "must feel guilt, anguish… because of actions, in which the person played no part, committed in the past by other members of the same race, color, national origin, or sex." The Stop WOKE Act applies to classroom instruction, but Baggett believes it also applies to library books.
Pressed on whether her interpretation of the Stop WOKE Act would allow any instruction about historical prejudice, Baggett suggested that When Wilma Rudolph Played Basketball might be appropriate for children starting in fourth grade. This directly contradicts what she wrote on the form, which states it is inappropriate for all grade levels.
Baggett's social media accounts raise more questions about her approach to racial issues. In 2015, Baggett posted a picture of the Confederate Flag on her Facebook page.
Baggett said she posted the flag because "everyone in my clan fought in the Civil War" and she was not "ashamed of that." Baggett added that she was a member of the Daughters of the Confederacy, which has been designated as part of the Neo-Confederate movement. As recently as 2018, the group's website stated: "Slaves, for the most part, were faithful and devoted. Most slaves were usually ready and willing to serve their masters."
Baggett said she did not believe the photo of the Confederate Flag she posted on Facebook could make her students uncomfortable. She said her students "know me very well" and "my best friend is a black woman."
Baggett's challenge of When Wilma Rudolph Played Basketball prompted a review of the book on November 28 by an Escambia School District committee comprised of teachers, administrators, parents, and community members. That group considered the views of Baggett and advisory counsels formed at 11 individual elementary schools in the district.
All 11 school advisory councils that met to discuss When Wilma Rudolph Played Basketball rejected Baggett's arguments. They found the book was appropriate for elementary school students. Comments included: "This book details the true struggle of prejudice faced by the main character," "There are no questionable elements to this book," and "Biographies of successful African-Americans are important to have as part of a diverse library collection."
The Escambia School District committee has not yet issued a decision regarding Baggett's challenge. If Baggett loses, she could appeal to the Escambia County School Board, which appears sympathetic to her point of view. The board has already sided with Baggett after her challenge of a different book, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, was rejected by the school district.
The district is dealing with a flood of book challenges, and nearly all of them were filed by Baggett. She is responsible for 148 of the 150 book challenges in Escambia this year.
Indoctrinating second graders with penguins
Baggett's challenges are not limited to books she believes handle racial issues inappropriately. She has also challenged numerous books for allegedly violating the Parental Rights in Education Act, also known as the "Don't Say Gay" law. The law, signed by DeSantis in March 2022, states that "classroom instruction by school personnel… on sexual orientation or gender identity may not occur in kindergarten through grade 3 or in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students." Although the law states it applies to classroom instruction, Baggett believes it applies to library books.
Among the books challenged by Baggett 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 — after the zookeeper provides them with an egg — they raise an adopted child, Tango. There is no sexual content in the book.
Baggett alleged the book promoted the "LGBTQ agenda using penguins." On the form, Baggett said she believes the purpose of the book is "indoctrination."
In an interview, Baggett said she objected to And Tango Makes Three because it exposes students to "alternate sexual ideologies." She noted that, at one point in the story, the zookeeper says, "these two penguins must be in love." That, she says, is sexual "innuendo" and K-3 students are "too young to even be concerned about sex." (Baggett's challenge says the book is inappropriate for all grade levels.)
Baggett explained her objections in more detail: "I think what would happen is 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." Baggett said that was "perfectly fine for some families" but "perfectly not fine for others."
She said she challenged the book because she believed it violated the law. Asked if she personally thinks that second graders should not read And Tango Makes Three, Baggett said her opinion was "irrelevant." Baggett did say she supports the Parental Rights in Education Act because she believes that "kids need to be kids."
Baggett's challenge to And Tango Makes Three was also considered at the November 28 meeting of the Escambia School District committee. Nine of the eleven school-level advisory committees who reviewed Baggett's objection rejected her arguments: "[T]he message is one of compassion and tolerance," "The concepts in this book are appropriate and depict true events," and "Families are families." Two school advisory committees agreed with Baggett. The district committee has not issued a final decision.
The difference between The Handmaid's Tale and Hustler
In addition to challenging books for elementary school students, Baggett has challenged dozens of books for high school students, primarily objecting to sexual content. Books Baggett has challenged on this basis include Perks of Being a Wallflower, Beloved, Slaughterhouse-Five, and Water for Elephants.
Baggett considers many of these books pornography and believes their presence in schools a violation of Florida's child pornography laws. In a letter to school administrators, Baggett called for the school employees who purchased Perks of Being a Wallflower — one of NPR's best 100 teen books — to be "held accountable for actually making these sorts of books available to our children."
Baggett told Popular Information that she has a "really good test" to determine whether a novel with sexual content is actually pornography. According to Baggett, "[i]f I could not walk up to you and start saying to you in a conversational tone" anything written in the book "and know that I'm not going to be in trouble," then that book is pornographic and should be excluded from the library.
Baggett's test, however, does not comport with Florida or federal law. Florida's law prohibits books in school libraries that both contain "explicit and detailed verbal descriptions or narrative accounts of sexual excitement, or sexual conduct" and are"harmful to minors."
Florida law and Supreme Court precedent affirm that not every book with explicit sexual content is harmful to minors. The Supreme Court laid out the standard for obscenity in the 1973 case of Miller v. California. The Miller test defines obscenity as work that appeals to "purient interests," depicts sexual conduct in a "patently offensive way," and "taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value."
Jonathan Friedman, the director of free expression and education programs at PEN America, explained that the Miller test means people like Baggett cannot "take a single image or paragraph and say the book is obscene or harmful to minors." Rather, the law requires an evaluation of the book as a whole. That's why high school students can read The Handmaid's Tale, which has graphic descriptions of sexual violence, but not Hustler Magazine. In other words, context matters. (One of the books Baggett is challenging is the graphic novel version of The Handmaid's Tale.)
Under Baggett's test, how could a school offer sex education? A teacher could not, in a casual hallway conversation, describe to a student the mechanics of oral sex. But that does occur in sexual education classes. Most people understand that, in that context, the information is not harmful to minors.
Baggett said that the high school where she teaches does not offer a sex education class. According to Baggett, her school’s biology teacher covers some related topics but does not "discuss oral sex in that formal fashion" because "it is not her place." Baggett said that she also believed it "is not the school's place" to offer sex education. She said that people who support sex education in schools "assume that the teacher knows what they are doing" and "do not understand what's happening in public education."
In her challenges, Baggett claims the American Library Association, which recommends many of the books Baggett is challenging, is "pushing porn in… public educational institution[s]."
Restrict first, ask questions later
While Baggett's views may not be widely shared her efforts have already restricted dozens of books from Escambia students. Every book that Baggett labels as "pornography" is immediately placed in a "restricted" section of the library. Students can only access these books if they receive special permission from their parents.
125 books are currently under restrictions as a result of Baggett's challenges. They will remain in restricted status until the challenge process is complete. Although Baggett began filing challenges in August, thus far, only one book has made it through the process. And the list of restricted books continues to grow. Baggett submitted 11 additional books on December 2. All of them have been restricted indefinitely.
This kind of restriction has been deemed illegal in the past. In 2002, a federal court in Arkansas ruled that requiring a permission slip to check out Harry Potter books from a school library was unconstitutional. In Escambia, the school district is restricting books challenged by Baggett under a draft policy that, as of this week, has not been approved by the school board. It's unclear why. An official from Escambia County Schools involved in processing the book challenges declined to comment.
Baggett is looking for even more aggressive action. She has repeatedly asked school officials to identify the librarians or other school employees responsible for purchasing the books she has challenged. Baggett said that, ultimately, she believes her colleagues "can and will be prosecuted" for felonies under Florida's child pornography laws.