March 7, 2024

Sue Kingery Woltanski: “Book Ban Hoax” To Target School Principals

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In Florida, Ron DeSantis is trying to deal with pushback and bad press coming from his book bans. Sue Kingery Woltanski has some thoughts about who is going to carry the weight of the new initiative. Reposted with permission. 

First they came for the teachers, threatening their professional teaching certificate if they provided classroom instruction to students in grades K through 12 on sexual orientation or gender identity or used the wrong personal titles or pronouns in educational institutions.

Then they came for the librarians, threatening them with 3rd degree felonies and possible prison terms if students are exposed to ‘harmful materials” and urging them to “err on the side off caution” when choosing books for school libraries.

Now, it appears, they are coming for school principals.

On Friday, March 1st, at 10 AM, a State Board of Education Rule Developing Workshop will be held to amend 6A-10.081: Principles of Professional Conduct for the Education Profession in Florida. The purpose “is to consider amendments clarifying the ethical principles that educators are bound by in the state of Florida, with particular emphasis on the obligation to the educator’s students. The development will include consideration of expanding the grounds for disciplinary action against school principals to address classroom practices that can harm students, such as denying students access to classroom materials, including classroom library materials, for reasons unrelated to the educational needs of a student.” While parents are encouraged to challenge books and teachers and librarians are threatened if they make certain books available to children, it seems that principals may be disciplined if they prevent children from having access to books that never should have been challenged in the first place… Oh Flori-duh…

As of this writing, the preliminary text of the proposed rule is not available, but it will be posted here when it is. In the meantime, you can leave comments here. There will also be time for public comments during the Rule Development teams meeting (details in the notice below can also be found here).

This is the current situation in Florida.

On February 15, 2024, Governor DeSantis and Education Commissioner Manny Diaz, Jr, participated in a press conference where they sought to, once again, debunk the “Book Ban Hoax.” DeSantis also blamed “activists” and “the media” for perpetuating the hoax and abusing the book challenge process “in an effort to score cheap political points.” He mentioned challenges of dictionaries and classics, like “To Kill A Mockingbird” or Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” as examples of frivolous, politically motivated actions and called for a return to common sense.

Unfortunately, “common sense” left the building when HB1069 (passed in 2023 and codified in f.s. 1006.28) required that “any materials purchased pursuant to this section must be… free of depictions or descriptions of sexual conduct as defined in f.s. 847.001(19)…” (unless they are course materials that follow the state’s sex education standards.) Since then, books have been removed and/or restricted in some Florida public school libraries, not by the state, but primarily by school boards and district staff attempting to comply with the laws imposed by the state.

Per f.s. 847.001(19) : Definition of “Sexual conduct”:

This is why some of your favorite books or even the classics that you read in high school are showing up on lists of books challenged and/or removed from district classroom or libraries across Florida. Books, even classics, have been challenged, restricted and/or removed in public school libraries across Florida – not because they were pornography but because they contained passages describing “sexual conduct.” Orange County School Board member, Alicia Farrant, who stood with Governor DeSantis during the 2/15 presser, has, herself, challenged books and supported their removal simply because they describe “sexual conduct.”

Of note, f.s. 1006.28 , does not mention books on the State’s Recommended Reading List as exempt from possible challenges and “Romeo and Juliet” and the dictionary definitely depict and describe sexual conduct as defined in s. 847.001(19). The problem is not activists trying to score cheap political points as much as it is poorly written legislation and lack of clear implementation guidance.

It is VERY difficult to “err on the side of caution” and, simultaneously, rely on “common sense” in the politically charged environment that school librarians and educators find themselves in, especially when their livelihoods are threatened if their choices are challenged.

How will the Governor and the Commissioner work to return “common sense” to the curation of books for school libraries? They could provide clear guidance to districts and librarians beyond “err on the side of caution.” They could repeal the “sexual conduct” language from last year’s HB1069. But no, according to the accompanying press release:

To further streamline the parental objection process and shield districts from activism, Governor DeSantis:

  • Directed the Department of Education to take the appropriate action to prohibit bad actors in school leadership positions from intentionally depriving students of an education by politicizing the book review process.
  • Called on the legislature to enact policy that prioritizes parents’ voices by limiting bad-faith objections made by those who don’t have children learning in Florida.

The “bad actors in school leadership positions” accused of “politicizing the book review process” and “intentionally depriving students of an education” are the school principals they are about to target through rule making.

As for limiting “bad faith objections” made by those who don’t have children in public schools, it is unclear what the plan is. Governor DeSantis had voiced support for HB7025’s proposal to limit frivolous book challenges by, allowing school districts to assess a processing fee of $100 for each objection to any material someone without a student enrolled in the school, if that individual had unsuccessfully objected to five materials during the calendar year. The bill would have required the district to return the fee if the objection is upheld. On 2/23/24, HB7025’s sponsor, Rep. Trabulsy, filed a strike-all amendment to HB7025’s companion, SB7004, which removed the $100 fee but limited non-parents to one book challenge per month. That amendment was withdrawn today and another strike-all was filed that removed the limits to non-parents, the $100 processing fee and any measure to reduce frivolous book challenges. So we are back to square one.

SB7004, which unanimously passed the Senate on January 10th, is scheduled to be heard this Thursday on the House floor.

Over the weekend, I attended a school board conference in Dallas. The Keynote speaker spoke about “Fearless Leadership” and the importance of psychological safety. He said:

  • When people are afraid, they cannot learn
  • Adults telegraph their anxieties to students and one another
  • Fear is a contagious disease.

The bottom line: in a fearful environment, neither students nor adults can learn.

Fear is not a great way to run a school system. More threats to teachers, librarians and (now) principals will NOT return “common sense” to the curation of books for school libraries. More threats will will only create more fear.

Please consider commenting on the Board of Education Rule expanding disciplinary actions against principals.

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