If the school system is a ship, the Volusia County School Board is its captain. While many things are out of the board’s control — state and federal legislative changes, for instance — even minor decisions by School Board members can ripple through the vast enterprise.
The School Board’s job begins with policy-setting. Wrapped up in an effort to update outdated policies this year was the seemingly innocuous updating of Policy 320, “Media Selection of Print and Non-Print Materials.”
In essence, state laws passed in 2022 governing books in school libraries had little tangible effect on Volusia County Schools’ existing policy. The new laws allowed for a book-challenge process for residents, which the district already had in place. Nineteen books went through the full formal process this year, with all but one ultimately judged appropriate for high-school and/or middle-school libraries.
The policy update originally clarified some language and directly referred to the updated Florida state statute. At the School Board’s Feb. 28 workshop, the only addition the board directed staff to make was the definition of “obscenity” in Florida state law, so that those reading the policy would not have to go in search of the exact language.
So why, then, the commotion?
For one thing, the policy immediately sparked a larger, more philosophical debate about parents’ rights, age-appropriateness, the role of reading, and the notoriously difficult definition of “pornography.”
Some mothers took the opportunity to read out loud at School Board public meetings writing they deemed pornographic, spending their allotted three minutes each reciting passages about sexual assault or masturbation from the fictional texts.
The School Board, in an attempt to protect themselves from any liability, read a disclaimer before these public comments, asking anyone under the age of 18 to leave the room. This led to one surreal moment in the middle of a marathon 11-hour workshop in which a high-school student (a rare sight at School Board discussions on policy) refused to leave the meeting on the basis of his First Amendment rights. He was vouched for by teachers union leader Elizabeth Albert, and ultimately was allowed to remain in the meeting while a mother read aloud a book excerpt that referred to cunnilingus.
Other parents bristled at any book removals, maintaining that it is their right to let their children read school books. Teary-eyed media specialists spoke about feeling attacked for doing the job they were trained to do, while career teachers spoke about removing their in-class libraries out of fear.
By the time the dust had settled, there were several changes in staff organization and the policy.
1 — Kris Smith, who led the Library Media Services and Instructional Materials Department, was replaced in March with Desiree Rybinski, formerly an early learning and English arts coordinator, who now has the title of instructional materials coordinator. Smith moved to the English Language Arts Department.
2 — In an attempt to clarify the process, language was added to the policy stating that the principal, consulting with the media specialist, may remove a book they deem in violation of the law.
3 — The makeup of the book-reconsideration committees was altered after some parents who objected to certain books complained that the committees (which failed to ban any of the 19 challenged books) were stacked against them.
Each challenged book is considered by its own committee. These committees were originally composed of nine members each, including six representatives from various school positions (including a principal and two teachers) and three community members. The committees will now have seven members, with three representatives from schools and four community members, mirroring the makeup of the District Advisory Committee.
4 — School staff members responsible for the selection and purchasing of media materials will have to sign a “written acknowledgement of his/her responsibilities under this policy and Florida law.”
The board members often seemed perplexed by the response to their work on the policy. In their view, many of the changes are minor.
But critics charge that the total effect of the changes could be chilling. In legal terms, a “chilling effect” is when vague and/or broad laws curtail legitimate and protected speech or action.
And currently, 18 books that were removed for review by the book reconsideration committee process — but were OK’d to stay in school libraries — have yet to be put back on the shelves.
Although the committees recommended retaining all 19 challenged books, at least in high schools, one, Flamer by Mike Curato, was removed when the district decided it violates state statutes.
The others will be kept on an “opt-in” basis, the meaning of which is unclear.
In response to a request for clarification, Volusia Schools Community Information Specialist Danielle Johnson wrote in an email that “A committee of media specialists will be convened to determine the procedures for opt-in.”
The results of the committee recommendations can be found HERE.
The Volusia School Board is not alone in the ups and downs of navigating an uproar about books: Each county school board across the state has had to interpret and implement state changes and address their own vocal constituents.
Amid this backdrop, another wave looms: Yet another state education bill has reached Gov. Ron DeSantis’ desk. House Bill 1069 has been passed by both the Florida House and Senate. In addition to regulating pronoun use, the bill makes it easier to object to books, which would then have to be removed from all bookshelves until the complaint is resolved.
For months, the Volusia County School Board’s policy surrounding books with material some consider explicit has been a hot topic. Here are some of the comments.
Video clips are from the March 7th and 28th Volusia County School Board meetings that were streamed on YouTube.