“Unsure what titles violate new state rules, two school districts tell educators to conceal every book for now
Students arrived in some Florida public school classrooms this month to find their teachers’ bookshelves wrapped in paper — or entirely barren of books — after district officials launched a review of the texts’ appropriateness under a new state law.
School officials in at least two counties, Manatee and Duval, have directed teachers this month to remove or wrap up their classroom libraries, according to records obtained by The Washington Post. The removals come in response to fresh guidance issued by the Florida Department of Education in mid-January, after the State Board of Education ruled that a law restricting the books a district may possess applies not only to schoolwide libraries but to teachers’ classroom collections, too.
House Bill 1467, which took effect as law in July, mandates that schools’ books be age-appropriate, free from pornography and “suited to student needs.” Books must be approved by a qualified school media specialist, who must undergo a state retraining on book collection. The Education Department did not publish that training until January, leaving school librarians across Florida unable to order books for more than a year.
The new law comes atop an older one that makes distributing “harmful materials” to minors, including obscene and pornographic materials, a third-degree felony — meaning that a teacher could face up to five years in prison and a $5,000 fine, a spokeswoman from the Florida Department of Education said Tuesday. She suggested violating House Bill 1467 might yield “penalties against” an educator’s teaching certificate. Still, because of uncertainties around enforcement and around what titles might become outlawed, school officials have warned teachers that their classroom libraries may expose them to the stiffest punishments.
The efforts to conceal titles in Manatee and Duval have stirred outrage from educators and parents, many of whom shared images of bare wooden shelves or books veiled behind sheets of colored paper. Teachers wrote in Facebook posts and text messages that they are angry and disheartened. District officials in both counties have emphasized that the removals are temporary and will last only until staff can determine whether the titles meet the standards imposed by Florida law.
Michelle Jarrett, president of the Florida Association of Supervisors of Media, which assists school library administrators and programs statewide, said that “closing and covering up classroom libraries does nothing to ensure Florida’s students remain on track for reading success.”
And Marie Masferrer, a board member of the Florida Association for Media in Education and a school librarian who used to work in the Manatee County system and remains in close touch with former colleagues in that district, said they have told her that students are struggling.
At one school, “the kids began crying and writing letters to the principal, saying, ‘Please don’t take my books, please don’t do this,’” Masferrer said.
A spokesman for the School District of Manatee County said in a statement Monday that the district “is abiding by all applicable laws and statutes of the state of Florida, and adhering to the guidance of the Florida Department of Education.”
A spokeswoman for Duval County Public Schools wrote in a statement Monday that “we are taking the steps required to comply with Florida law,” adding that “there are almost 800 titles currently approved, and the list grows each day as books are reviewed.”
The department’s new rule, published and approved Jan. 18, “clarifies that library materials, including classroom libraries, must be approved and selected by a media specialist.” This goes against precedent: Classroom libraries have historically been overseen by no one but teachers, who simply selected and stocked books they believed might be intriguing to students. Often, teachers bought these texts with their own money or by fundraising online.
During a televised hearing before the Florida House Education Quality Subcommittee on Jan. 25, Education Department Chancellor Paul Burns was asked by Rep. Christopher Benjamin (D-Miami Gardens) whether the department’s guidance and training on book collection could yield “unintended consequences.”
Burns said he was unaware of any, but “if there’s any changes that need to be made ... we’re certainly open to that.” The Florida Education Department did not respond to several questions, including one about whether the latest developments might constitute unintended consequences.
Manatee County’s January directive, obtained by The Post, says teachers who maintain elementary and secondary classroom libraries must “remove or cover all materials that have not been vetted” in accordance with state law. Going forward, any classroom library books must be “reviewed by a media specialist using the FDOE guidelines” before they are “presented and approved” at a special school meeting and finally “signed off by the principal.”
When one teacher emailed Manatee Superintendent Cynthia Saunders with questions and concerns about the directive, Saunders replied that violating the state law on book collection could lead to “a felony of the third degree,” according to a copy of the superintendent’s email obtained by The Post.
“We are seeking volunteers to assist with vetting and compiling [a] website list so books can be returned to classroom libraries,” Saunders wrote.
The district declined to comment on Saunders’s email or to answer a question about when school officials might complete their reconsideration of classroom library books.
In Duval County, the district published a brief blog post on Jan. 23 announcing that, after “recent training and direction from the state, Duval County Public schools will now conduct a formal review of classroom libraries.”
Two days later, the district shared with staffers a private, unlisted YouTube video titled “Classroom Libraries.” In the seven-minute video, obtained by The Post, Chief Academic Officer Paula Renfro announced that “classroom libraries will be temporarily reduced to only include ... books that have been approved by certified media specialists and books on the state-approved” list.
“In the meantime, books not on the district-approved list or not approved by a certified media specialist need to be covered or stored and paused for student use,” Renfro said. “As a reminder, though, this is temporary.”
She said that school officials are working to get classroom books “back to students’ hands as quickly as possible,” and that the district is considering giving teachers free time to vet books, as well as reemploying retired school library media specialists to help with the process.
Manatee Education Association President Pat Barber said in an interview that she has received many confused and concerned questions from teacher members about the district’s new policy on classroom libraries. She said educators are “distressed” by the idea of possibly receiving a third-degree felony conviction for providing books to children.
“And if they are required to vet all the books in their classroom libraries, where the time will come from?” Barber said. “We’re talking about, for some people, thousands of books because they have developed these libraries over years.”
Although teachers in Manatee and Duval have aired their frustration in private social media posts, employees in both districts declined interview requests, citing school policies and fear of losing their jobs.
“I have over 800 books so it’s been a huge mess,” wrote one in a text message provided to The Post by Masferrer. “The kids don’t understand it’s just so sad.”
After this story was published, a Florida Department of Education spokeswoman responded to questions, sharing some details about which violations would incur which penalties. Those details have been added.“