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The battle over books in Tampa Bay's public schools

library bookshelves
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In Tampa Bay, some districts are dealing with book challenges or complaints about content from parents.

While many Florida school districts are facing complaints about books deemed inappropriate for minors, not all officials are in full support of banning them.

The national spotlight on book bans continues to intensify as school districts across the country pull pieces of literature from their shelves after receiving complaints about their explicit, sexual or age-inappropriate material.

In Florida, the conversation is extremely topical as legislators recently passed a bill, House Bill 1467, that would make it easier to pull books from school libraries’ shelves. The legislation has now moved the the Senate.

In Tampa Bay, some districts are dealing with book challenges or complaints about content from parents. Some have pulled or are reviewing specific books, while one frequently sees parents complain about materials at school board meetings.

Most recently, Polk County Public Schools took 16 books from its shelves in January after County Citizens Defending Freedom, a conservative group, claimed the books violated state law against distributing "harmful materials" to minors. The books were removed while the district’s review takes place.

The list of books includes Pulitzer prize winner Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye” and “Beloved,” and Khaled Hosseini’s modern classic “The Kite Runner.”

But some officials have qualms with the potential removal.

At a recent school board work session, Superintendent Frederick Heid told board members that the books in question have been checked out a combined 115 times across 48 schools since the 2020/2021 school year began. Some of the books were never checked out during that time period.

Polk county books checked out
Polk County Public Schools
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The books were removed while the district's review takes place.

"If these are the most concerning books and they're not being checked out," Heid said, "is there justification in the argument that somehow these books are exposing students to content that basically flies in the face of family values and other things and that are eroding our social system?"

Heid told members he thinks students' online activity may warrant more inspection.

"The better argument is what's being done to protect children in an online environment at home on their own time, on their own personal devices, because there's a greater likelihood they're accessing content that way than they are clearly through these print materials," Heid said.

Board member Sarah Fortney also took issue with pulling the books out of the district's libraries. She said that while she supports parent choice, this move would affect all of the district's students.

"We have all students, all kids, and it's kind of unfortunate that these titles are gonna be not accessible even though they have not been heavily checked out,” she said. “I just want people to be mindful when you ask for things like this you know it affects all kids, not just your kid.”

The district is in the process of setting up two committees that will each review eight books. It should take them about three months to perform the reviews.

Pinellas County also made headlines late last fall when the district removed Maia Kobabe's “Gender Queer: A memoir” from general circulation at two of its high schools. Officials said the graphic novel about the nonbinary author’s coming of age was not age-appropriate for all high school students.

Students at Lakewood High School fought the district’s decision, presenting administration with a petition calling for the book to be reinstated. They say the move was censorship and pushed back progress the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance had made.

No other books have been removed in the past two years, according to district spokeswoman Isabel Mascareñas.

And in Hillsborough County, while there hasn’t been any formal push to pull books from schools, parents frequently voice concerns over books at school board meetings.

At one recent meeting, Julie Gebhards spoke to the board about the “explicit content” in the district’s libraries, saying she’s concerned for the welfare of the district’s students. She started off by detailing how Kacen Callender's young adult novel “Felix Ever After” contains 66 “F-bombs” and was checked out by a student at a local elementary school.

“It’s been a bit of a journey through the last nine months or so with me coming to these meetings,” she told board members. “First the outrage of "The Bluest Eye," with the pedophile describing his encounters with little girls. Then the discovery of so many more books. The count increases daily.”

“The casual nature of all sorts of encounters: sexual, drugs, alcohol. They’re on our shelves by the thousands,” she added. “Again, what about the welfare of our children?”

District spokeswoman Erin Maloney notes that parents do bring up concerns about specific books at meetings.

“We have a formal challenge process, but currently no parents have filed any challenges to books in our district,” Maloney wrote. She added that the district has not removed any books in the past two years.

But in some Tampa Bay districts, these complaints haven’t risen to the surface.

The District of Manatee County hasn’t had any books challenged recently, wrote district spokesman Michael Barber in an email.

“We are aware this is an issue many school district’s are facing, but to this point, it has not really been an issue for us,” he said.

Similarly in Sarasota County, the district has not heard any complaints about books as of late, and has not removed any pieces from school libraries in the past two years.

Bailey LeFever is a reporter focusing on education and health in the greater Tampa Bay region.