There were many highlights during nine and a half hours of Flagler School Board meetings on Tuesday, Nov. 16. Most of them centered around the question of whether the book, “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” should be available for students to check out at school media centers.
During three hours of public comment at the regular board meeting, again most of which dealt with the book, the opinions were largely split.
The issue came to light after board member Jill Woolbright filed a criminal report with the Sheriff’s Office a week earlier. She claimed the book’s availability in the schools was a crime, according to a Florida statute that prohibits distributing obscene materials to a minor.
Like much of the regular meeting, the board members' closing comments bordered on theatrical with Colleen Conklin ending her comments by showing a video by “All Boys Aren’t Blue” author George M. Johnson defending his memoir about growing up Black and queer, which includes sexually graphic passages.
Conklin and Woolbright delivered lengthy closing speeches, which will no longer be allowed in future meetings. During the very short business portion of the 5½-hour regular meeting, the board approved a new operations procedure manual that limits closing comments to five minutes and restricts public comments at the beginning of meetings to be about agenda items only. Public comments at the end of meetings can be about any topics.
Had that procedure been in effect this meeting, nearly all of the public comments would have been held at the end.
Board member Janet McDonald suggested that board members' closing comments be restricted to their own words only, referring to Conklin’s video.
Meanwhile, Woolbright said Johnson threatened her on Twitter, saying “Finish her.” Woolbright said “lots of people” had sent her the tweet, and “lots of people, including myself, sent it to the Sheriff.”
Earlier in the day, Johnson wrote on Twitter, “The Proud Boys and moms for liberty also claim I ‘threatened’ Jill by saying ‘finish her’ to a writer. This is why we need books bc reading comprehension is at an all-time low. Want to know what is a threat? Filing an unethical criminal complaint against a Black persons book.”
Johnson attached a screen shot of a tweet by Keka Araujo to Johnson that said, “I can cover this if you like.. I WILL PUBLICLY CLOWN HER. I am absolutely BIASED.” Johnson replied: “Finish her!”
Later in her comments, Woolbright got emotional, saying she felt “nothing but empathy and compassion for George Johnson … because we are more alike than we are different.”
Woolbright said she grew up in an extremely abusive home. She said she was abused by her father and repressed those memories, so she knows first-hand that a book like Johnson’s, which describes a sexual assault by an older cousin, can trigger repressed memories of trauma.
'Crime of the third degree'
“I have advocated for children my entire career,” Woolbright said. “I taught kids in foster homes. I advocated for those kids, some I mainstreamed.”
She said, in a meeting with School Superintendent Cathy Mittelstadt and Board Attorney Kristy Gavin on Nov. 3, she did not ask for four books to be pulled, as reported by Flagler Live. She said she asked only for Johnson’s book to be removed.
Woolbright said she did bring up three other books in that meeting – “Stamped,” “The Hate U Give” and “Speak” – that she found on a list by Project Lit of “edgy” books that she looked up and discovered were also available in district media centers.
“They assured me it would be taken care of, but days later I hadn’t heard anything.”
She said she told Mittelstadt and Gavin that in her research of Florida statutes, making “All Boys Aren’t Blue” available to students “is a crime of the third degree.”
“They assured me it would be taken care of, but days later I hadn’t heard anything,” Woolbright said. She said the other board members “were not alerted that there was a possible crime.”
Woolbright said she had been blindsided as a board member several times, and she got scared and lost confidence in Gavin. She said she then sought counsel on the matter with a private attorney.
Mittelstadt said there is a process the district takes when books are challenged.
“I exercised my right to engage my team to go through (the four books in question), and they’re doing that now,” she said.
Mittelstadt said they started doing that at the conclusion of the meeting with Woolbright.
Yelling match between protesters
Board member Cheryl Massaro said because of Woolbright’s criminal report, the School Board is powerless to make a decision about the book while the Sheriff Office is investigating the report.
In the meantime, students will be unable to read the book.
Outside of the Government Services Building before the meeting, high school students and adults protesting the possible banning of “All Boys Aren’t Blue” and other books got into a shouting match with members of the community who wanted sexually graphic material removed from school book shelves.
McDonald and Conklin acknowledge a fracture on the school board.
“I apologize because this board has been involved in non-stop drama."
“I apologize because this board has been involved in non-stop drama, and there are extremely important issues we need to focus on,” Conklin said.
McDonald told the dwindling audience members at the tail end of the marathon meeting, “a lack of trust on the board is what you’re seeing.”
Then she praised Woolbright for her courage.
“Jill, I have to thank you profusely for your courage and will to carry this through, because this is a benefit for everyone in the community.”
Most of the public comments centered on Johnson’s book, with many people who advocated removing the book wanting to read aloud the graphic passages, only to be rebuked by Board Chair Trevor Tucker.
Several other speakers questioned the board’s decision at their Nov. 2 workshop to change the title of one of the goals in the new Strategic Plan from “Equity” to “Student Support.” McDonald said she preferred the term, “Student Success.”
Massaro, who delivered the deciding vote to make the change, said she would like to return the item to a workshop agenda to discuss it again.
The fractured School Board was apparent at the start of the regular meeting when Mittelstadt led the annual reorganization meeting to select a new board chair and vice chair.
While they unanimously selected Tucker to serve a second consecutive term as board chair, two nominations were made for vice chair. McDonald nominated Woolbright, while Massaro nominated Conklin. Tucker broke the deadlock, voting for Conklin, who will also serve a second consecutive term in that position.
Before Tucker adjourned the meeting at 11:42 p.m., Mittlestadt had the final word.
“I believe we can reach out and reestablish trust where it may be fractured right now,” she said. “I implore you to think with open minds. Trust and respect for all. I embrace that.”