Alachua County parents say they're fearful of book banning implications
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A boy combs through the bookshelves at the Headquarters Branch library recently in search of a book his mother will allow him to check out. He chose to take home “Urban Outlaws,” an adventure chapter book for children. (Abigail Rillo/WUFT News)

Officials with Alachua County Public Schools say they are taking stock of what’s on school library bookshelves over the summer break.

Jackie Johnson, the Alachua County Schools public information officer, said the county is having ongoing meetings to ensure that content abides by state and district standards in preparation for the 2023-2024 school year.

“There has been new legislation about what books can be offered in media centers. We are in the process of reviewing that legislation,” Johnson said. “There’s always a process during the summer months to go through the legislation and make decisions.”

Barbra Paulison has two children, both of whom attend elementary schools in Alachua County. Paulison said she worries that her children’s education will suffer from book bans being implemented across the state.

“I would like for (teacher’s bookshelves) to have a variety of topics,” Paulison said. “I want all life paths to be represented. I want everyone in that class to be able to get something from those books.”

She said she considers diversity to be a cornerstone of her children’s education. In 2022, Gov. Ron DeSantis ordered schools to censor identity-related content from school libraries.

In March of last year, Gov. DeSantis signed HB-1467, which requires all public schools to create an up-to-date database of all media content available to students. The bill allows parents of school children to submit complaints about specific books in schools and requires school administration to respond to such claims.

The goal of HB-1467 was to ensure race-based and sexually explicit material are eliminated from schools. The bill also bans content related to sexual orientation and gender identity for students in kindergarten through third-grade classrooms.

School media specialists have received online training from the Florida Department of Education to review all material for such content.

According to the censorship advocacy group, PEN America, more than 200 books have been banned across Florida in accordance with the bill’s guidelines, including “Brave New World” by Aldous Huxley, “The Hate U Give” by Angie Thomas and “Gone Girl” by Gillian Flynn.

Johnson said Alachua County was one of the only Florida school districts with a pre-existing database that is constantly updated.

“We already had (a database) in place,” Johnson said. “We’ve also had a policy in place that allows parents who don’t want their child to see any category of books to make a request to their school’s media center that their child is to not have access to those books. We have not had any requests like that.”

Alachua County Public Schools plan to abide by all state and district regulations. Still, some parents are unsure of what the new school year will bring in August.

While the school board says that it is committed to the education of their students, Gainesville residents, following the actions of the school board, remain weary about the future of censoring books in schools.

Davis Shockley, 22, is a lifelong Alachua County resident who has attended public schools here from kindergarten through high school. He says he has noticed ways in which the school board has changed.

“Some of these school board officials have dug their heels in, have held grudges and have problems listening to outsider perspectives because they think they know everything,” Shockley said. “Which, for people in charge of education, that’s not the best mindset you should have.”

The Alachua County Library District has vowed, so far, not to remove any materials from library shelves on the basis of censorship.

Brad McClenny’s job as the public relations and marketing manager of the library district is to ensure libraries abide by the American Library Association’s position on censorship of information addressing diversity education standards.

“We don’t support censorship in any way, or book bans,” McClenny said. “People should have free and open rights to information, which they have here.”

When it comes to the concerns of library patrons regarding accessible material, the library has strict guidelines to evaluate the appropriateness of the content and its location in the library.

“We have had two challenges so far this year,” McClenny said. “A book is in the middle (of being challenged) and a movie was denied to be taken off of shelves. The book is called “Grandad’s Pride.”  

The book, a sequel to the children’s book, “Grandad’s Camper,” details a grandfather’s and granddaughter’s plan to host a pride parade in their small town as an act of advocacy. The book is not available in the Alachua County Public Schools library database.

Although Paulison said her children have “not yet been affected” by book bans in schools, she said she wishes to offer her children a factual and diverse education. That’s why her family spends time at public libraries, checking out books that may not be on teachers’ shelves next school year.

Discussions regarding inclusive curriculum and regulating media content continue at Alachua County Public Schools as the school board prepares its staff for the upcoming school year. Parents are able to stay up to date on current regulations with their students’ media centers.

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