Florida Teachers Shut Down Classroom Libraries in Fear of Felony Charges

Florida bill will vet school libraries, reading lists for inappropriate material
By Patricia Tolson
Patricia Tolson
Patricia Tolson
Patricia Tolson, an award-winning national investigative reporter with 20 years of experience, has worked for such news outlets as Yahoo!, U.S. News, and The Tampa Free Press. With The Epoch Times, Patricia’s in-depth investigative coverage of human interest stories, election policies, education, school boards, and parental rights has achieved international exposure. Send her your story ideas: patricia.tolson@epochtimes.us
January 26, 2023Updated: January 27, 2023

Teachers in Manatee County, Florida are scrambling to shut down their classroom libraries out of fear that unapproved books made available to students could violate Florida pornography laws and carry a third-degree felony charge.

The move comes in response to a new rule that provides clarification of Florida House Bill 1467 (pdf). HB 1467 requires books in school library media centers or those included in recommended or assigned reading lists to be selected by an employee with a valid educational media specialist certificate. In Florida, school librarians are called “media specialists” and must have a bachelor’s degree in either library science or educational media.

The stated purpose of Rule 6A-7.0713 (pdf) “is to provide school districts with the requirements for the format districts must use on elementary school websites in order to post, and permit searches of, materials maintained in elementary school library media centers and materials found on a required school or a grade-level reading list in an elementary school.”

The rule also clarifies that the term “library media center” includes classroom libraries: “any collection of books, ebooks, periodicals, and videos maintained and accessible on the site of an elementary school including classrooms.”

Currently, many of the books in classroom libraries—originating from a teacher’s personal collection, being supplied by parents, or having been donated by members of the community—are not vetted through a required approval process.

Rule Increases Transparency

A press release by the Florida Department of Education on Oct. 19, 2022, announced the adoption of the new rule, stating that it would “increase the transparency of elementary school library materials and reading lists—thereby eliminating inappropriate, indoctrinating and pornographic materials in libraries and classrooms.”

Manatee County school district Chief of staff Kevin Chapman spoke with The Epoch Times about HB 1467 and the new rule.

“The training for our media center specialists and the guidelines they must follow in order to approve or not approve a book came out on Jan. 1,” Chapman said. “Then you come back from the holidays and it’s the fifth or sixth and we had to get all of our media center specialists trained. Last week we began the process of cataloging classroom libraries and adding them to the database, making sure all of those books are approved and getting rid of the ones that aren’t approved.”

Chapman said he believes Manatee County was the first school district in Florida to create a review committee to start reviewing books in their classroom libraries in an effort to comply with the new rule.

Commenting on the attention his district is receiving in news reports and social media, Chapman said he believes “all of the interest in this is because we must be the only school district that’s starting it.” He added that one would “think that you’d be seeing this in all the school districts.”

“Because it’s the law, we think we need to comply and comply right away,” Chapman asserted. “So that’s why we’re on it.”

‘How We Got to This Point?’

The Manatee County school district issued a timeline of the new law and the school district’s implementation of it, with the heading “How we got to this point?” The timeline is included in the district’s “Update on Media Center Materials” (pdf) presentation—listed as Agenda Item No IV.2 (pdf)—to be shared with the public at the Manatee County Schoolboard Workshop on Jan. 27.

According to the timeline, HB 1467 was “signed into law,” on July 1, 2022. In actuality, HB 1467 was signed into law by Gov. Ron DeSantis almost a year ago, on March 25, 2022. The law took effect on July 1, 2022, six months ago. It’s a point Chapman acknowledges.

While the bill did not take effect until July 1, a memo (pdf) sent from the Florida Department of Education a month before the law took effect advised all Florida School District Superintendents of their responsibilities regarding compliance with the legislation.

Districts were given until July 1, 2023, “to certify to the FDOE that all school librarians and media specialists employed by the district had completed the required training developed by the FDOE.”

“As soon as [the law] went into effect on July 1, we started right away when it comes to our media centers,” Chapman said.

Clearing Up Ambiguity

Chapman said “there was ambiguity in the law about classroom libraries,” which was “why school districts needed the State Board of Education to come out with their rule and the state with their training.”

Chapman suggested there was also ambiguity regarding what is meant by the word “pornography.”

HB 1467 states that “all material in school and classroom libraries or included on a reading list” must be “free of pornography and material” prohibited under Florida Statute 847.012.

“How do you define that?” Chapman asked rhetorically, adding that “the law does not define that when it comes to a library book.”

Florida Statute 847.012 states that adults “may not knowingly distribute to a minor on school property, or post on school property,” any “book, pamphlet, magazine, printed matter however reproduced, or sound recording” that contains photographs, drawings or any other visual images depicting “nudity or sexual conduct, sexual excitement, sexual battery, bestiality, or sadomasochistic abuse.”

Nor may any materials contain “explicit and detailed verbal descriptions or narrative accounts of sexual excitement, or sexual conduct and that is harmful to minors.” Ignorance of a minor’s age or having a minor’s consent “may not be raised as a defense in a prosecution for a violation” of this law.

Further, statute 847.012 states that Any person violating any provision of this section commits a felony of the third degree, punishable as provided in s. 775.082, s. 775.083, or s. 775.084.”

The Path to Compliance

For Florida’s Certification of Alignment and Adoption of Instructional Materials (pdf), school superintendents must certify that all “instructional materials used by the school district in core courses are aligned with state academic standards, as set forth in s. 1003.41, F.S., and Rule 6A-1.09401, Florida Administrative Code” and that “the school district’s process for the review, selection, and adoption of instructional materials complies with hearing requirements established by a district school board and the public meeting requirements set forth in s. 1006.283(2)(b)8., F.S.

A sample Library Media Book List (pdf) from the Manatee County school district includes titles that require parental consent at specified grade levels.

Procedures for challenging instructional materials are outlined in the district’s Media Material Reconsideration Procedure (pdf) draft proposal. A request form to be completed by members of the community for reconsideration of any library reading materials is included.

HB 1467 states that school boards are responsible for the content of all instructional materials “and any other materials used in the classroom, made available in a school library or included on a reading list,” no matter how they were acquired. School principals will be held responsible for overseeing compliance with the new law.

Parents’ Rights and Freedom

“In Florida, our parents have every right to be involved in their child’s education,” said Gov. Ron DeSantis on March 25, 2022, at a press conference before signing the bill into law. “We are not going to let politicians deny parents the right to know what is being taught in our schools. I’m proud to sign this legislation that ensures curriculum transparency.”

Former Florida agricultural commissioner Nikki Fried took to social media to decry the new law. “Whether the new laws explicitly say which books are banned or not, the result is the same,” Fried said in a Twitter post on Jan. 24. “A chilling effect on the 1st Amendment. The exact opposite of FREEDOM.” Fried recently lost her bid to unseat DeSantis as Florida’s governor.

Teachers React

In response to the knowledge that the new rule applies restrictions on reading materials in classroom libraries, some Manatee County teachers took to social media to express their disappointment.

“My heart is broken for Florida students today as I am forced to pack up my classroom library,” one teacher lamented. “Due to the new law that went into effect on December 31st all Manatee Teachers must remove all books that have not been ‘vetted’ by the state or risk being charged with a THIRD DEGREE FELONY and losing our license.”

“The teacher further bemoaned that “the vetting process for new books is cumbersome” and “accepting donated books from parents and community members will not be allowed.”

An educator of 18 years called the directive to dismantle classroom libraries “a travesty to education.”

Some teachers posted photos of their classroom libraries covered with paper and the covered libraries of other teachers.

Another social media post critiqued the law’s requirement that books be vetted for compliance with state laws as “a complex process,” further lamenting that “librarians in Manatee County are now expected to review thousands of books in classroom libraries” and that “any mistake could result in criminal charges.”

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