Volusia County School Board to discuss book challenge process in March 28 workshop

The district received a list of 77 challenged books and has narrowed it to 19, VCS Deputy Superintendent Rachel Hazel said.

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  • | 2:00 p.m. March 10, 2023
Photo courtesy of Volusia County Schools
Photo courtesy of Volusia County Schools
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Nineteen library books at Volusia County schools may be permanently removed from the shelves because community members have “challenged” them due to alleged sexual content. 

Three more books, the district confirmed, are under review at the individual school level. 

At a School Board meeting on Feb. 28, VCS Deputy Superintendent Rachel Hazel said the district had originally received a list of 77 challenged books.

“This challenge process wasn’t written for a list of 77 books,” Hazel said. “So when you get a large list like that, it is a cumbersome process to go through this.”

The board was discussing changes to its policy on selecting print and non-print items due to recent legislative changes for vetting books in schools.

The proposed changes included specifying that materials selected for school media centers were chosen in compliance with Florida statutes and outlining definitions for what constitutes “harmful materials,” “harmful to minors,” “obscene” and “sexually-oriented material.”

Jenifer Kelly, the chapter chair for Moms for Liberty Volusia, said the proposed changes to the School Board’s policy were good, but “didn’t go far enough.”

Having attended a book challenge meeting at New Smyrna Beach High School in November for “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” by Jesse Andrew, and “Damsel,” by Elana K. Arnold, Kelly read aloud a passage of the latter where two characters undressed to have sex.

Cristyl McClure, another Moms for Liberty chapter member, then spoke about the profanity in “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.”  Both books remain in the school’s library, McClure said.

“With hundreds of titles needing to be challenged, the current challenge process would take years, because if we have 100 books and we have 20 schools, you can do the math,” McClure said.

After a lengthy discussion, which included tweaking the policy to let principals pull books before the books go through the district process, the board tabled the agenda item. 

The board will discuss the policy during its workshop on March 28.

Media specialists speak up

Volusia’s procedure for book challenges starts when an individual brings their objections to the principal of the school of where the book is located. 

The challenger then meets with the principal and other instructional staff to discuss the complaint. If it’s still not resolved, the objection must then be presented in writing.

The principal will evaluate the challenged material with the  school’s instructional review committee, which will inform the complainant in writing of its decision.

If the complainant disagrees with the resolution, the challenge is brought to the district, where it undergoes a similar process. 

Media specialists and community members from across the district spoke at the March 7 board meeting in support of Volusia’s existing process. 

Maria O’Brien, a media specialist at Atlantic High School, said she felt attacked by the recent book challenge discussions and asked the board to give educators the time to do their job in a diligent manner. 

O’Brien, who has been with the district for 23 years, said she had recently been recognized by the board for having an innovative library media program at her school.

“I came here, stood here with you, took photos and believed for a moment that you stood with me — that you were proud of me, proud of my school,” O’Brien said. “... I thought that you had the capacity to see the full picture and the little details a person in this position could do if he or she were given the respect to pursue and implement what some of our founding fathers saw as essential to our democracy: books, reading, school libraries.”

One speaker read a statement submitted by DeLand High School’s media specialist, Sheila Butchart, who said that the district had asked all media specialists to join a Microsoft Teams meeting that day where they were told that the district’s media supervisor would be moved to another department. 

The call, according to Butchart, was abruptly ended, and media specialists left with questions. 

“If this is the year of the people, I sure do hate to see how employees will be treated in the future,” Butchart said in her statement. “We are under fire in all directions by our governor, our legislature, members of our community. Media specialists want to follow the laws, and although I will say it is pretty insulting as a media specialist with a master’s degree in at least four master’s level classes on book selection, we still follow the procedures that were set in place.”

Jackie Crawford, a media specialist with Discovery Elementary, said she went to school to get her master’s in library science because she was “passionate about serving the public and ensuring children have access to books.” She said she hadn’t read all of the challenged books, but she had read some, and considered them to be important. 

“I think I can speak for my fellow media specialists when I say that we are in this because we care about kids and we want what’s best for them,” Crawford said. “When extremist groups say harmful things about educators and media specialists, they’re not only trying to discredit our education and our career, but also our humanity.”

'We have thousands of books'

The majority of the 19 books in the district challenge process are in high school libraries. Hazel said only a couple were found in middle schools.

She noted that Volusia parents also receive a form regarding media center access for their students: Parents can choose to let their student have full access, limited access with descriptions of things the parents wish to restrict, or no access at all. 

It’s a process that shouldn’t be handled with a broad brush, School Board Persis said. He added that just because a book has a particular word doesn’t make it a “bad book.” 

“There are some books I’m sure that shouldn’t be there, and I’m sure we’ll get them off the shelves,” Persis said. “But you know, we have thousands of books. I can’t even imagine how many thousands of books we have ... and I’m sure 99.9% of them are perfectly placed at the right level.”

Persis asked Hazel if she was familiar with rating systems suggested by Moms for Liberty. Chapter members had mentioned BookLooks during their comments on Feb. 28.

BookLooks was created by “concerned parents who have been frustrated by the lack of resource material for content-based information regarding books accessible to children and young adults,” according to the BookLooks website. 

The website states it has no affiliation to any groups, including Moms for Liberty.

But board members were concerned about the BooksLooks rating for the book “TTYL,” by Lauren Myracle. School Board member Ruben Colon said the book’s content is too explicit to be age-appropriate, but BookLooks rated it as a 2/5. 

Hazel said she had seen the rating system, but that that there are two types of reviews for books — crowdsourced and peer reviewed — and that peer reviews, what the district uses as a reference, are vastly different from crowdsourced reviews and don’t have the same criteria.

“Obviously something has slipped if these books got in ... and they were peer reviewed,” Board member Anita Burnette said. “I’m very disappointed.”

Prior to the new legislation, using peer reviews is what was required of districts by the state, Hazel noted.

“We haven’t ever wavered from having a media committee at the school that makes those selections, and I think there’s been some good points made here about it comes down to implementation and the details,” Hazel said.

Colon said the discussion should start with the board establishing what its policy is. 

“Because the reality is if these books got on the shelf, and they were against policy, and they shouldn’t have been there to begin with, then what are we challenging?” Colon said.


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