OSCEOLA COUNTY, Fla. — A committee formed by the Osceola County School District recommended that four controversial books be restored to at least high school library shelves. Despite that, board members held off and decided to take the process into their own hands.
District leaders pulled the books — “Looking for Alaska,” “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” and “Out of Darkness” — last school year amid pushback from conservative parent groups over themes related to sexuality and racism. The nine or 10 district employees and six community members in the committee have been reviewing and debating their suitability ever since. They came to the following conclusions:
- By a unanimous vote, “Looking for Alaska” should remain on library shelves, with the majority of committee members agreeing it was suitable for middle and high schools.
- In a 13-3 vote, “All Boys Aren’t Blue” should remain on high school library shelves.
- By a unanimous vote, “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” should remain on high school library shelves.
- In a 15-1 vote, “Out of Darkness” should remain on high school library shelves.
The board voted Tuesday night to hold a workshop in which they will dictate a new set of rules for challenging books, and likely call upon themselves to read the books and make a decision about their suitability.
The decision by the initial committee particularly outraged board member Jon Arguello, who started accusing district staff of conspiring to keep the books, no matter their content, to make the leadership happy.
“Certainly, this was not a real process,” he said. “This certainly would not have been the governor’s intention to get this stuff out. All of these books are staying, which is what we knew would happen.”
Arguello went on to say that all books in a school library should have academic value, calling casual reads not a good use of taxpayer money.
In the audience, several women were audibly and equally displeased.
“In Playboy magazine, they don’t have the pictures that they have in those books that are in the library in school,” Joanne Colonna, a representative of Women’s Crusaders, said, adding that she’d challenged six books.
The pro-book side maintains that the books are acceptable for many teenagers, as they have been rated by literary agencies, and parents should have the right to allow their kids to check them out.
Additionally, they said school library books should be stocked with material that can relate to all types of kids, especially ones whose home or personal lives aren’t as secure.
“We have to keep that passion alive that kids have an elementary school to want to read for fun, to want to check out books throughout their entire educational career,” Media Specialist Camille Perez said, calling books an escape. “That’s how we create well-thought-out and well-educated citizens.”
Osceola County, along with other districts like Flagler County, has a system in place to let individual parents restrict which books their children can check out.
According to an email sent to the Florida Freedom to Read Project, as of the end of last month less than 300 of the district’s children, or less than half of 1%, had a restriction put on them. Flagler’s administrators said an almost equally low percent of their parents took advantage of their system.
That system is one of the reasons Julius Melendez, a board member who also wanted to delay Tuesday night’s vote, said it would be likely he’d vote to keep the books in some form.
Melendez said he wanted to read the books for himself so he could personally stand by the vote he will take, rather than acting as a rubber stamp.
“The district made their recommendations, but the school board owes it as well to do their own due diligence,” he said, adding that the committee’s recommendation would be taken into consideration.
He added that because parents should have the right to decide what their children should read, he’d be more interested in discussing the particular grade levels each book should be open to, be it high school, or like the committee recommended with “Looking for Alaska,” middle school as well, as well as any maturity warnings.
“There’s standards for instructional material like required reading,” he said, “Then, there’s voluntary reading, where parents have a right to say, ‘I want my child to be able to have access to different types of books.’”
However, the pro-book crowd decried the delay, saying the majority-media specialist makeup of the committee had the qualifications needed to objectively examine the books and determine whether they fit the district’s collection. They also took issue with the fact that the district unilaterally pulled these books for review without a formal parental complaint.
“I think that a healthy discussion is important,” Perez said. “Where do we draw that line? We have a system … a system that wasn’t followed and is now being questioned again.”
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