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Monday, March 04, 2024

Conservative parents weigh in on school library objections

Statewide changes to complaint form upcoming

Editor’s note: Two parents’ last names were excluded due to concerns of backlash.

When Lauren, a 24-year-old lifelong resident of Gainesville, was 14 or 15 years old, she encountered sexual passages — which she described as pornographic — in an assigned reading for English class at Gainesville High School. 

“It was describing very sexual things that I, as a 14- to 15-year-old, did not want to be thinking about,” she said. “It was stuck in my brain forever.”

Lauren told her mom, who complained to the teacher about the content. By then, it was too late, Lauren said — nothing could be done because she already read the book. 

Had it taken place today, Lauren’s mother could have submitted an objection against the book to the school board, potentially having the book removed from shelves permanently.

Following Alachua County Public School’s first book removal under protocols for challenging school library books, conservative parents are skeptical about whether a formalized system achieves its goal of protecting their children from inappropriate content at a young age.

Gainesville High School removed the book “Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out” from its library after a parent complained about sexual content, WUFT reported. It was the first Alachua County Public School to do so.

The formalized process of submitting a complaint is new as of this school year: Florida House Bill 1069, signed in May by Gov. Ron DeSantis, enacted sweeping conservative changes to public education, including allowing parents to submit objections about library materials in public schools.

Parents who wish to submit a concern about library material — whether in the school library or in a teacher’s classroom library — can find the form at the ACPS website. The form asks parents to identify the parts of the material they disagree with, what they feel will result from engaging with the material and whether they recommend another material to replace the one that would be removed.

The Florida Department of Education will vote on a revised material complaint form at a meeting Oct. 18. The new template eliminates questions regarding the effect of the material and recommendations for its replacement. It adds a question asking parents to identify if the material has any value.

If approved, counties will implement the new form template beginning in November, ACPS Spokesperson Jackie Johnson said.

Crystal Marull, a 44-year-old Gainesville resident, submitted the original complaint, as well as three others at Gainesville High and one at Terwilliger Elementary School, where her children attend. 

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The book’s sexual content, rather than its subject matter, was her concern, she said.

“From six up, I used to kiss other guys in my neighborhood, make out with them, and perform oral sex on them,” the book writes. “I liked it. I used to love oral. And I touched their you-know-whats. We were really young, but that’s what we did.”

Marull is worried backlash against book removals and the publicization of complaint forms prevents parents from speaking up about their concerns, she said.

Marull, a registered Republican, has always taken interest in her children’s education, she said. She recalled one time, before the formalized complaints existed, she was in contact with her daughter’s eighth grade English teacher about a summer reading list.

Titles on the reading list, which were Michael L. Printz Award winners and honor books, included “Angus, Thongs, and Full-Frontal Snogging” written in 1999, “Asking For It” written in 2015 and “The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things” written in 2003 — all of which Marull took issue with.

“Of course, I realize my daughter is getting older and content will be more advanced, but incest and thongs? This does not seem to be appropriate coming from school,” she wrote in the email.

Aside from “Beyond Magenta” at Gainesville High, she challenged “Thirteen Reasons Why,” “Being Transgender (Living Proud! Growing Up LGBTQ)” and “Understanding Sexual Identity: A Book for Gay and Lesbian Teens and Their Friends” for sexual content, according to WUFT. At Terwilliger, she challenged “A is for Activism.” None of the books were removed from the school library.

To her, challenging books allows schools to reexamine whether a book is appropriate and helps schools follow state law prohibiting sexual content — she just wishes the formalized complaint system didn’t make way for public backlash.

“I think that's what a parent who’s involved in and cares about their kid’s education will do,” she said. “I think most parents want to be an advocate for the best environment for [their] kids and for kids that are around their kids.”

Since her name was first published in relation to her objection, Marull has received one piece of “hate mail,” as she put it, opposing her challenge against “Beyond Magenta.” 

Bart Birdsall, a 56-year-old media specialist at the Sidney Lanier Center, sent Marull the email. He wrote it from the point of view of a citizen rather than that of a librarian, he said.

“I am shocked an educated person such as yourself is taking part in wanting to ban books,” Birdsall wrote in the email to Marull. “It is not what this highly educated community believes in.”

Having worked as an Alachua County school librarian for 11 years, he said he’s seen more students become interested in their phones than in reading. Challenging and removing books further dissuades students from reading, he said.

“You’re not hiding anything from them in a book,” he said. “They're not coming to our library searching for the gay books or the trans books. They're not doing that. We can barely get them to read books.”

Media center specialists are responsible for picking the library books. Although he often doesn’t have time to read books in its entirety, Birdsall consults reviews and other media center specialists to determine whether he should buy the book for his library.

“It's not willy-nilly,” he said. “We try to pick books with substance and with quality.”

Since the book challenging process was formalized, librarians are refraining from purchasing controversial or frequently banned books, Birdsall said, because they don’t want to be met with legal battles with parents.

ACPS allows parents to choose the level of access their children have to library materials. A separate online form offers “limited” or “no access” to library materials, depending on what the parents would like their child to be able to see.

Emily, a 31-year-old mother of a 2-year-old and a 3-month-old, planned to send her sons to public school — she values the diversity of students and experiences available there, she said. But she’s worried her concerns will be publicized and politicized if she chooses to challenge library materials.

“That would make it really hard for me to be involved in the school system in a way that I would want to be,” she said.

In an ideal world, Emily said, complaint forms would be available to parents, but they wouldn’t be public record — meaning, people outside the parties involved couldn’t see the form.

Under Florida’s Sunshine laws, government documents can be requested by the public and must be made available unless under a special exemption. 

While Emily doesn’t identify entirely as conservative, she said she leans more toward the conservative side on most issues. Situations like Marull’s make Emily more skeptical about the schools’ book selection process.

“When you entrust your child to the care of somebody else, you have to decide how much of their decisions you trust,” she said.

Contact Alissa Gary at agary@alligator.org. Follow her on Twitter @AlissaGary1.

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Alissa Gary

Alissa is a sophomore journalism major and University Editor at The Alligator. She has previously covered student government, university administration and K-12 education. In her free time, she enjoys showing photos of her cats to strangers.


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