When a parent submitted a challenge to the book “Beyond Magenta” in the Gainesville High School library in September, district staff faced a new situation. Book challenges were rare enough that most had never seen one, but a new state law opened up grounds for removal if a parent or citizen flags a book for sexual content.
Now Alachua County Public Schools has had 13 challenges from at least three citizens.
Staff removed “Beyond Magenta” from GHS’s shelves in October, and more recently ” The DUFF” and “Gender Queer” were pulled, also for sexual content.
Other titles challenged for sexual content include “13 Reasons Why,” “Tricks” and “All Boyes Aren’t Blue.” A parent has also challenged “Understanding Sexual Identity,” “Being Transgender,” “A is for Activist,” “My Maddy,” “Melissa” (previously published as GEORGE) and “It Feels Good to Be Yourself.”
“The DUFF” was one of 11 challenges from the same parent who turned in the first challenge, but a different person challenged “Gender Queer,” and last week the book’s removal was reconsidered after a WUFT report questioned the challenger’s residency, and therefore, her standing to challenge. The book would go back on the shelf at Eastside High School, the only school in the district that owns a copy.
District Media Specialist Patty Duval said staff did not have time to put “Gender Queer” back on the shelf before two citizens challenged the book, and staff decided not to put it through the hearing process again, since it had already been ruled to have sexual content.
The new state law that has made a way for such challenges, House Bill 1069, took effect in July. It requires schools to remove any materials containing sexual conduct from classrooms or school libraries, but only if a parent or citizen raises a concern. Parents can also submit challenges for material they feel is pornographic, unsuited to student needs, or inappropriate for the grade level.
The challenges go to school library advisory councils, which can be formed on a case-by-case basis if the school does not have a standing council. The council decides whether the challenge has merit, choosing to keep or remove the book. Previously, a principal could choose to overrule the council’s decision, as GHS principal Daniel Ferguson did in removing “Beyond Magenta” after the council approved it, but Duval said the district has now updated policy to focus on the council’s decision.
“We adjusted our policy so that a principal would not be put in that situation to make a single decision,” Duval said in a phone interview. “Because that’s really not fair to the principal, to put them in that position.”
Duval said she is frustrated to see decisions about what books stay in libraries depending on opinions of individual parents. She said most citizens who attend public meetings of library advisory councils are in favor of keeping the books, though they are not permitted to speak at the meetings.
Duval said when parents submit challenges, they are asking for the book to be removed from any facility in the entire school district, and she would rather work with them individually to help curate books for their children.
“If you have an objection about a book… we could have a conversation about it and we can explain to you, this is the selection criteria, this is why we chose the book, these are peer reviewed,” Duval said. “And try to come to an agreement rather than being constantly challenged because our books don’t really fit into what [the parents] feel is appropriate.”
When school media specialists are searching for books to add to their collections, they cannot select anything pornographic, according to Duval. However, Duval said the state standards to consider a book pornographic are different from simply containing sexual content, requiring the book also be harmful to minors.
Statute 847 on obscenity describes “harmful to minors” as follows:
“’Harmful to minors’ means any reproduction, imitation, characterization, description, exhibition, presentation, or representation, of whatever kind or form, depicting nudity, sexual conduct, or sexual excitement when it:
(a) Predominantly appeals to a prurient, shameful, or morbid interest;
(b) Is patently offensive to prevailing standards in the adult community as a whole with respect to what is suitable material or conduct for minors; and
(c) Taken as a whole, is without serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value for minors.”
According to Duval, for a media specialist to be considered to be distributing pornographic materials, the materials would need to meet all these standards, and books that make it into the library are safe under the law.
“None of our books meet that criteria, because they all have literary value,” Duval said in a phone interview. “So therefore, it might not meet the criteria for being pornographic, but it could still have sexual conduct.”
Newberry Commissioner Tim Marden submitted one of the two challenges to “Gender Queer” on Friday when he heard the original challenge was being nullified. He said he was frustrated to see the book put back on the shelf over a technicality for which the school district let a news reporter do the legwork to reach.
“I’m already not happy with the fact that we have adults in the room consciously deciding to put porn in the schools,” Marden said in a phone interview. “Somebody in the school board, or at Eastside High School, made a conscious decision to put that porn back on the shelf. We give them a certain amount of authority as parents with our children, and it shouldn’t require a process to get porn removed out of a school.”
Marden said the whole process is “bloated,” and leaves him questioning school district leadership’s ability to deal with complicated issues when the district has difficulty deciding whether a graphic novel depicting oral sex is pornographic.
The district began the semester operating with the same book challenge forms it had before the new law, which staff believed was compliant with the new law and its accompanying recommendations. In October, the state provided its own form for the district to use, and ACPS contacted the first parent who had submitted multiple requests, to let her know the forms she had used were outdated.
“We hadn’t really updated that form because we hadn’t really used it before,” Duval said. “So I guess we didn’t realize at the time that maybe this form could be better written to really meet today’s objections.”
The process has been further confused as ACPS staff tries to learn how to apply the new law. The district is training administrators on the system that will send challenges to the advisory councils, as one administrator already removed “The DUFF” from shelves on his own when he received the parent’s complaint. Duval said the district let that decision stand, because the book “clearly” meets the sexual conduct requirement.