Parents react to empty classroom, library shelves as DCPS continues book review

DCPS errs ‘on the side of caution’ in clearing schools of content condemned by DeSantis administration

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Districts across the state -- including Duval County Public Schools -- are performing a mass review of all classroom libraries and media centers after the Florida Department of Education handed down directives intended to comply with state law.

“The Florida Department of Education has trained all Florida schools districts to ‘err on the side of caution’ in determining if a book is developmentally appropriate for student use,” DCPS said in a blog post about the decision.

The law says that all books, specifically in elementary school libraries, must be looked over by a certified media specialist who has undergone state training on the new policy.

Parents, however, have been surprised to find their schools’ bookshelves empty during the review process.

“It actually blew my mind that we were living in a world where we were removing books from classrooms,” parent Brian Covey said.

Some parents say the review came as a shock to them and their children, and they what to know when the books will be returned or replaced.

Empty bookshelves at Mandarin Middle School (Images provided)

“How do we live in a world where books are being banned from the classroom,” said Covey, whose children attend Greenland Pines Elementary School. “They said that before school, all the teachers had to pack up their stuff, the librarian apparently tearfully announced that she no longer had a resource class to do. And she had to review all the books in the school. They also took all of the library books that had been checked out, and kids were in the middle of reading and said that they can’t continue to read those books until they’ve been reviewed.”

This week, a teacher in Manatee County covered up the books in his classroom and put up a sign that reads: “Closed by order of the governor.”

Florida state law says teachers must cross-reference their libraries with a list of pre-approved books.

Educators who violate this law could face a third-degree felony.

“I don’t know a single teacher who would come across an inappropriate book in their classroom and wouldn’t remove it,” Covey said.

A trained media specialist will vet any books that are not on the list.

The state statute requires media centers to be free from the following materials:

  • Pornography – defined in the Merriam Webster dictionary as “the depiction of erotic behavior (as in pictures or writing) intended to cause sexual excitement.”
  • Instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity in grades kindergarten through three.
  • Discrimination in such a way that “an individual, by virtue of his or her race, color, sex, or national origin is inherently racist or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously.”

The text of the law also defines what is considered harmful to minors:

(a) Any picture, photograph, drawing, sculpture, motion picture film, videocassette, or similar visual representation or image of a person or portion of the human body which depicts nudity or sexual conduct, sexual excitement, sexual battery, bestiality, or sadomasochistic abuse and which is harmful to minors; or

(b) Any book, pamphlet, magazine, printed matter however reproduced, or sound recording that contains any matter defined in s. 847.001, explicit and detailed verbal descriptions or narrative accounts of sexual excitement, or sexual conduct and that is harmful to minors.

Florida Statutes Title XLVI. Crimes § 847.012

As part of the media specialist training, Florida educators are warned that violating this policy amounts to a third-degree felony.

“Teachers will receive a list of already approved books for continued use for classroom reading while the remaining books are under review,” the district’s memo said. “District staff members are working with teachers and certified media specialists to efficiently review books and to update the list as books are reviewed and approved. The district will soon provide school staff with more specific guidance on the review process.”

The district said each book that’s deemed “appropriate” will be included in a public, online database, allowing the general public to see each book available to students.

Covey said he can’t blame the school district for going through with the review, but thinks it’s punishing students.

“It’s hurting their education. I have a feeling it’s a lot to do with the same as African American Studies and trying to control the AP courses, trying to control what kids can and cannot learn,” Covey said.

He said that, ironically, a book fair was happening at his children’s school while the books were being removed.

Free speech organizations, literacy advocates and educators have blasted the policy, calling the concern over “pornography” a false flag attack to satiate Gov. Ron DeSantis’ far-right base of supporters and a veiled attempt to purge progressive ideas from Florida’s schools.

The co-founder of the Florida Freedom to Read Project, Stephana Ferrell, described the policies as “a pattern of fear-based decisions that prioritize staying in good favor with the Governor over doing the right thing for our students.”

Free speech advocates have identified the concept of “erring on the side of caution” as a chilling effect on free speech. A “chilling effect” occurs when certain rights are restricted due to indirect political pressure or as a result of overly vague legislation.

“This is no free state of Florida. This is a state that censors books, censors educators, and censors students and families,” Broward School Board member Sarah Leonardi told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. “It is a state that seeks to limit access to knowledge and resources that don’t fit in a conservative ideological box. ... It is a state that is making it more and more difficult to educate or parent a child without constant fear of retribution.”

Supporters of the policy say it provides much-needed transparency to the materials made available to students.

A list of the books that have been banned from public schools in the following districts can be viewed in the link below:

The state Department of Education lists all the instructional material for media specialists on this webpage.

About the Authors:

A Florida-born, Emmy Award winning journalist and proud NC A&T SU grad