Some teachers removing classroom libraries to comply with new Florida rules, officials say

ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. — For five hours Tuesday, Orange County Public Schools leaders discussed the consequences of new Florida Department of Education rules holding the district accountable if any pornography is found inside a classroom or library.


The lengthy time devoted to that topic underscored the complexity of the situation: while state officials provided districts with the definition of pornography, they left everything else up for interpretation.

At one point during a particular discussion about nudity, a staff member helpfully pointed out books about classical architecture that depicted the Statue of David probably wouldn’t be considered pornographic.

READ: New BCU head football coach Ed Reed apologizes after he trashes school on social media

However, that was the only clear-cut example given.

“You could end up with very different interpretations of what the author intended to do,” Orange County School Board Chairwoman Teresa Jacobs said, exasperated.

READ: Lawmakers again try to finish off Florida’s ‘free kill’ legal loophole

The work session board members met over was intended to bring OCPS’ policies into line with the new state standards, but was often sidetracked by different scenarios and circled back on itself.

The meeting began with the announcement that three books caught up in the previous school year’s tidal wave effort by conservative groups to remove titles they found troublesome – Gender Queer,” “This Book is Gay” and “Let’s Talk: Teenage Guide to Sex” – had been permanently removed from school shelves due to their graphic content.

Conversations about which books might be removed in the future, and who got to decide which books to remove, took up most of the morning and afternoon.

READ: Florida is now picking its social studies textbooks, but how does the process work?

“I have very serious concerns if this becomes a slippery slope,” Maria Salamanca said. “We do have members on both sides of the political spectrum that do want to censor based on their agenda.”

Officials revealed that teachers, particularly those in elementary schools, were required to catalog each book in their classroom libraries so parents and the school district may review and approve the list.

Board member Melissa Byrd said some teachers were opting to remove their classroom libraries altogether instead of doing the extra work, a claim staff said they were also aware of.

READ: Lawmakers again try to finish off Florida’s ‘free kill’ legal loophole

“They’re packing them up and our babies are not having access to all those books in their classroom because of this,” she said, to the distress of her fellow board members.

Staff members said the district was promoting a free app installed on school iPads to take much of the labor out of the process, but admitted the app wasn’t perfect. They said classroom libraries were the individual decisions of each teacher.

“We’re still struggling from the pandemic and the thought a child doesn’t have access to as many books concerns me,” board member Angie Gallo said, suggesting those classrooms be offered additional media time as compensation.

READ: Brevard County schools reporting fewer attacks to state, data shows

Her fellow member, Karen Castor Dentel, asked if only parents of the students in the classroom would be able to challenge the individual class lists. Staff told her it could be anyone in the county.

“We don’t want to put restrictions on what other children read,” she said.

The concerns spiraled into other matters as well. The school district’s current policy states that if parents and staff members of one school decide a book is pornographic, all other schools must adhere to their finding.

READ: Report calls for Ed Department to improve process for investigating misleading colleges

That led to Jacobs arguing that one particularly conservative or liberal-leaning group in a school may try to force their beliefs upon the entire district.

Jacobs also wondered if the school would be responsible for books accessed through the public library system installed on school iPads. If so, she said, the district would have to delete the software.

Conservative-leaning board member Alicia Farrant, who led the charge against some library books last year before winning her seat, said it was time for the district to get back to the fundamentals.

READ: Florida teacher unions share concerns over vacancies, state pushes back

“Parents are here for reading, writing, arithmetic,” she said. “This is just making sure that in our schools’ kids don’t have access to what some parents don’t agree with.”

Farrant argued that the district should draw lines in the sand and come up with scenarios and words that would automatically disqualify books, such as levels of sexual content or a certain number of curse words, to remove uncertainty.

Other board members responded by saying every parent’s view was different and some children needed more mature books to deal with situations they may encounter in their personal lives.

READ: Florida teacher unions share concerns over over vacancies, state pushes back

Board member and former teacher Vicki Elaine-Felder kept arguing that the school board and parents were attempting to micromanage the professionals and stymie creativity in the classroom.

Felder said teachers normally approach administrators and parents ahead of introducing mature or controversial content into their lessons.

READ: Brevard County set to open its first medical school

“Please consider giving teachers the fact that they can make rational decisions about some of the books they’re going to read,” she said.

Board members decided to meet with staff members individually and reconvene in a few weeks’ time.

READ: U.S. Dept. of Education proposes student loan “safety net” to cap payments, cut interest

Click here to download the free WFTV news and weather apps, click here to download the WFTV Now app for your smart TV and click here to stream Channel 9 Eyewitness News live.