A total of 89 books were challenged in Volusia County Schools in the 2022-2023 school year, according to data released by the Florida Department of Education. Two books were removed.
Ormond Beach parent Anna Hannon called the ratio "the worst in the state by a landslide" in an email to Volusia County School Board members and school district officials.
"When I see these numbers, I see a quality measure — a quantitative measure of the partnership between VCS and the parents," wrote Hannon, who is part of the Moms for Liberty Volusia Chapter, a parental rights organization.
In an interview with the Observer, Hannon said that various parents — including herself and chapter chair Jenifer Kelly, have been working with VCS on pulling books with inappropriate content off library shelves since April 2021.
"We felt like we were making progress, like we were being heard," Hannon said. "And to go through this year-and-a-half of book challenges and this entire exercise of the challenge process, and then only two of those being removed? It just doesn't feel like they are listening to the parents or that they respect our opinions on the fact that these are obscene books."
Hannon and other parents plan to speak on the issue at the Sept. 26 School Board meeting hoping to get more books removed. They're relying on Florida House Bill 1069 to get this accomplished, as the bill, which went into effect on July 1, states "Parents shall have the right to read passages from any material that is subject to an objection."
If the board denies a parent the right to read passages due to explicit or obscene content, "the school district shall discontinue the use of the material," the new law states.
At a recent Indian River County School Board meeting, the local Moms for Liberty chapter was successful in pulling 34 books after the school board chair stopped people from reading passages or placed a content warning on the speaker, according to Treasure Coast News.
Volusia County Schools said in a statement to the Observer the new law doesn't require a revision to its current policy on media selection of print and non-print materials.
In previous meetings where speakers read book passages aloud that contained explicit material, School Board Chair Jamie Haynes issued a disclaimer. When asked if this would continue to be the protocol, the district stated "This is at the discretion of the School Board chair."
Ormond Beach resident Sheila Zinkerman, of a state grassroots organization called Citizens for Truth and Justice in Education, said the strategy used at the Indian River County School Board meeting was wrong and based on "bad law."
"They (the committees) are reviewing the book as a whole and Moms for Liberty just pick out these sections and these passages," Zinkerman said. "... You can't make a decision based on one little section."
According to a list by VCS, eighteen books went through the challenge process and were retained. The books were:
- "All Boys Aren't Blue" by George M. Johnson (Retained in high school libraries only)
- "The Black Flamingo" by Dean Atta (Retained in high school libraries only)
- "Burned" by Ellen Hopkins (Retained in high school libraries only)
- "Crank" by Ellen Hopkins (Retained in middle school and high school libraries)
- "Darius the Great Deserves Better" by Adib Khorra (Retained in high school libraries only)
- "Fade" by Lisa McMann (Retained in high school libraries only)
- "Glass" by Ellen Hopkins (Retained in high school libraries only)
- "I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter" by Erika Sanchez (Retained in high school libraries only)
- "I'll Give You The Sun" by Jandy Nelson (Retained in high school libraries only)
- "Laura Deen Keeps Breaking Up with Me" by Mariko Tamaki (Retained in high school libraries only)
- "Looking for Alaska" by John Green (Retained in high school libraries only)
- "Out of Darkness" by Ashley Hope Perez (Retained in "upper" high school libraries only)
- "Sold" by Patricia McCormick (Retained in middle school and high school libraries)
- "The Infinite Moment of Us" by Lauren Myracle (Retained in high school libraries only)
- "The Perks of Being a Wallflower" by Stephen Chobsky (Retained in high school libraries only)
- "TTFN" by Lauren Myracle (Retained in high school libraries only)
- "TTYL" by Lauren Myracle (Retained in high school libraries only)
- "YOLO" by Lauren Myracle (Retained in high school libraries only)
The two titles removed from library shelves were "Flamer" by Mike Curato and "Relish: My Life in the Kitchen" by Lucy Knisley. The district's list only mentions the removal of "Flamer."
Kelly said "Flamer" was removed because the governor called out the school district for having the book during a press conference and that Relish was removed by a principal and a media specialist at one school at her request.
"So neither one of those books through all the challenges that we put forth over the last year and a half were removed by the actual policy," Kelly said.
The district stated the claim about "Flamer" was not accurate.
Zinkerman said CTJE has been tracking the objections and found that VCS has not been very transparent about the process with the public. There were 89 reported objections, but the majority were resolved during school-based reviews.
"That's what we were trying to find out: What happened to all these books?" Zinkerman said. "And so it looks like the other removals happened during the informal school-level reviews and it seems the district knew the outcome of these removals. ... But it's unclear why detailed outcomes of the removals didn't appear on the recorded report."
The process for challenged materials is critical, she added. The committees are made up of professionals who review the books as a whole, not in sections.
"A child sitting in school at a desk reading this book, even with these passages in it, is much different than somebody standing up in public, picking out a few sentences and just blurting them out to get what they want, which is to ban it," Zinkerman said.
No challenges, according to the district, have been submitted for this school year.
Is the process working?
VCS states on its website that each school library media collection is developed in accordance with Volusia County School Board Policy 320.
The policy states that "the primary objective of the school’s educational media center is to implement, enrich,
and support the educational program of the school. The media center shall provide a
wide range of materials in a variety of formats on all levels of difficulty, with diversity
of appeal, and representing different points of view. Materials are considered for
their quality and appropriateness and must serve both the breadth of the curriculum
and the need and interests of individual students."
It states that the materials selected will also be in compliance with Florida Statutes, and outlines definitions of what constitutes “harmful materials,” “harmful to minors,” “obscene” and “sexually-oriented material.”
The challenge process starts by an individual bringing their objection to the principal of a school where the book is present. Then the complainant meets with the principal and school-based instructional personnel to discuss the complainant's objection. Then, according to the policy, if the objection is not resolved, it must be presented in writing on a form.
It then follows the appeals process, first at the school level with the school's instructional review committee. If a resolution is not reached, then the material is reviewed by a district-level committee appointed by the superintendent.
After that, if the complainant still disagrees with the decision, he or she may file an appeal to the superintendent and the school board will make the final decision.
It's a long process and one that feels like "it's designed to fail," Hannon said.
"A parent would have to go through several different levels of the challenge process, and I just don't think that any parent has that kind of time to continue to go through all these different levels," she said.
Another reason Kelly said the school board's policy must be updated is that HB1069 states objections not resolved at the district level can now be reviewed by the State Board of Education.
"I'd like to continue to work with [the district]," Kelly said. "But I am going to take the path of least resistance to get the sexually-explicit material out, and if it is reading it at the microphone to have the microphone cut, that's what we're going to have to do."
The process was working, which is why Moms for Liberty opposes it, Zinkerman said.
"The books were going back to where they were supposed to be, and that's why they passed this [HB] 1069 law, because the process to go through review was working," Zinkerman said.
This is about the students, she added.
"It's not about banning books," Zinkerman said. "It's not about this culture war. It's not about Moms for Liberty coming in and causing havoc on school board meetings. It's about the wellbeing of students for the greater good and when a chair on a school board defends that right, that's the bottom line."
There's a misconception, Hannon said, when the public hears about "banned books" that Moms for Liberty is trying to remove classic literature, like "To Kill a Mockingbird" by Harper Lee. She also said they're not targeting books that have LGBTQ or diverse representation.
"That just happens to be part of the book as well, but we are going after the sexually-explicit books," Hannon said. "So I don't think it's fair that people call us racist or homophobes due to trying to pull the sexually-explicit books."