PUNTA GORDA, Fla.—On Aug. 10 Polk County Schools will be in session and so will 16 book titles that some parents found “objectionable” at the end of the 2021-2022 school year.
Some parents believe that the books violate Florida law.
In February, the school board voted to pull the 16 titles from the shelves of school libraries and quarantined them until further review.
During a school board workshop that month, Polk County school superintendent Frederick Heid told those in attendance that a total of 56 books had been initially identified as being in violation of Florida law, but later narrowed the list to 16.
In response to growing concern from parents and worries over Florida statutes—more importantly F.S. 547.012, which deals with the distribution of obscenity to minors, a third-degree felony—Heid formed a review committee to evaluate the “questionable titles.”
The district developed a process to thoroughly examine each book where they were evaluated by educators, community stakeholders, mental health experts, parents, and high school students.
The review committee’s findings were presented at a May school board meeting by the superintendent with his recommendations on how to handle parental concerns over the books being available to their children.
The committee found that none of the books would be banned and only some of the titles were to be moved to the high school level. The school board did not make or vote on any recommendations on how to move forward with any policies regarding the committee’s findings or who would make the policy.
At the July 26 board meeting, Heid explained to the board that he planned to implement an Opt-In/Opt-Out policy.
Opt-In allowed parents to give permission for students to check out a library book that had been part of a district-wide book review.
The Opt-Out option allowed parents to view every title available in the library their student attends; parents can select the title they do not want their student to check out.
Parents would choose which option worked for them.
Robert Goodman, executive director for County Citizens Defending Freedom (CCDF), told The Epoch Times that Heid had spent “school resources” in the form of money and time developing software for a parent portal and developing the Opt-In/Opt-Out policy without board approval.
“He [Heid] spent the entire summer spending money and resources building software,” Goodman said.
The Epoch Times reached out to Heid and asked why the Opt-Out program was the only option available to parents. The schools’ communication and public relations director Jason Geary responded in an email.
“While the superintendent had recommended both an Opt-Out and Opt-In process, it was not supported by the majority of the school board,” Geary wrote.
“PCPS is committed to empowering parents and guardians to make the decision about what books their children can access in their school library.
“The library and media materials Opt-Out process was created over the summer and gives parents and guardians a convenient way to see a list of all materials available through their child’s school library, and they can ‘opt out’ of any books that they find objectionable.”
However, following the July 26 school board meeting the superintendent was approached by what he described as a “majority” of school board members who had “disagreed with the policy and wanted Opt-Out only.”
According to the PCSB website, Opt-Out allows for all the books to be returned to the shelves and will be made available as part of their regular media catalog on “day one of the school year.”
It remains unclear whether board members “approached” the superintendent independently or as a group.
Goodman believes the policy is “purely political.”
Since the board consists of seven school board members, at least four had to make their requests known to the superintendent.
It is also an election year, no one board member wanted to own their decision, Goodman told The Epoch Times.
“They did not want to be responsible for this decision, so they gave it to the superintendent,” Goodman said. “Basically, they gave it to him by proxy; they gave him the power to make the decision.”
Goodman went on to say that he did not know if giving the superintendent proxy votes was “entirely legal.”
Florida attorney John Charles Heekin told The Epoch Times that Goodman is correct in his estimation.
“The board would have to vote on that, they can’t proxy away their legislative authority to an executive,” Heekin said.
The Epoch Times was not able to find the identities of the “majority of the board members” who approached the superintendent and asked for the policy to be changed to Opt-Out only.
Three of the seven board members are up for reelection and one seat is being vacated.
Kay Fields is a registered Democrat but running as non-partisan; Sarah Fortney is running non-partisan but is endorsed by the Democratic Party of Polk County, as is Lisa Miller who is also running non-partisan.
Goodman said that the goal was never to ban books but to give parents a choice.
“Nobody wanted to ban books,” he said. “If you, as an adult, want to go to the library and check out the book that’s great. But giving an 11-year-old unfettered access to that with no parent supervision—no checks and balances—we thought was beyond acceptable.
“Our argument was about parents’ choice.”
Goodman said the books that were in question had content such as rape, bestiality, and pedophilia in them that were not “acceptable to middle school-aged children.”
“People are making this a political issue,” Goodman said. “This is not a left or right or Republican or Democrat issue—this is like good versus evil.”
The Epoch Times reached out to the governor’s office, the Florida Department of Education and individual Polk County School Board members but did not receive a response by press time.