A new Florida state statute met public speaker decorum rules at a Sept. 26 Volusia County School Board meeting to startling effect: 14 books may ultimately be discontinued and removed from all Volusia County school libraries permanently, including books by noted authors Kurt Vonnegut and Toni Morrison.
Confusion currently reigns over whether the act of cutting off public speakers from reading book passages deemed too explicit by School Board Chair Jamie Haynes triggered Florida’s 2023 state statute that the district must discontinue the books. Only one book, Identical by Ellen Hopkins, was not interrupted. That book will go through the reconsideration process outlined in school policy.
Read more about the reconsideration committees here: Small changes, high feelings in the battle of the books
For the rest, Florida law passed this year mandates that, “If the school board denies a parent the right to read passages due to content … the school district shall discontinue the use of the material.”
But the School Board and its attorneys appeared to believe that provision of the law was only triggered after the book was formally objected to. Hastily printed objection forms were provided to the speakers after their remarks, and 10 written objections were made that night.
However, in response to a query from The Beacon about two specific books that had previously gone through the reconsideration process, district representatives indicated that some of the books would be immediately pulled.
“Per Florida Statute, if the school board denies a parent the right to read passages due to content that meets the requirements under sub-sub-subparagraph b.(I), the school district shall discontinue the use of the material,” a district representative wrote in an email response. “Therefore, Volusia County Schools will discontinue the use of All Boys Aren’t Blue and Sold. These books will be removed. There is no further committee required.”
Those two books, and one other, Perks of Being a Wallflower, had already gone through the reconsideration process, and were deemed appropriate and kept in schools. But because the School Board did not allow the speakers to finish, the school district may be required, by Florida law, to discontinue the use of the material permanently, representatives from the school district said.
“We are currently reviewing the specific objections of all others to determine the next steps,” Instructional Materials Coordinator Desirée Rybinski wrote in a follow-up email.
In all, 10 written objections were made Sept. 26, including ones for Slaughterhouse-Five, as well as The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, two books considered classics that have also often been the target of book challenges. Passages from 14 books, including the 10, were read aloud.
The next steps may depend on the grounds for the objection — objecting to sexual content, as opposed to pornography, triggers different state statutes.
“Slaughterhouse-Five was objected to for pornography. Therefore, it will be discontinued from use in Volusia County Schools,” Rybinski wrote.
All the books, both with written objections and read aloud, will be pulled for now, as required by state statute, while the school district figures out what to do.
A School Board workshop is planned for Oct. 10, specifically on the book challenge policy.
Future School Board meetings promise to be contentious. Whether a formal objection must be made first or not is moot: Books can be formally objected to, beginning a process of reconsidering, then read aloud in School Board meetings assuming they will be interrupted, triggering automatic discontinuation mandated by state law.
A packed meeting
Something was clearly afoot in an otherwise normal School Board meeting. Dozens of people waited for their turn at public comment, a brewing storm that befitted the outside weather. As the sky darkened and phones lit up with tornado warnings, more than 40 public comment cards lay ahead, all on a non-agenda item: books in school libraries.
The strategy of reading the books aloud was driven by the local chapter of Moms for Liberty, a conservative group that has led the charge against certain books in schools. Group members and those aligned with the group, briefly introduced themselves before reading aloud passages from books.
At least six other organizations had representatives at the meeting to urge the School Board to let books remain in the library, including the League of Women Voters, the African American Leadership Council, the Volusia Association of Media Education, and Citizens for Truth and Justice in Education, a local group that sprang up in response to book challenges last year.
The discussion at times took on a surreal air, as both board members and the public talked specifically about sex. School Board Chair Jamie Haynes, in a brief discussion period before public comment, read directly from state statute definitions of obscenity.
“‘Simulated means the explicit depiction of conduct described in subsection 16 which creates the appearance of such conduct and which exhibits any uncovered portion of the breast, genitals or buttocks,’” Haynes read. “‘Specific sexual activities includes the following sexual activities and the following anatomical areas: Human genitalia in the state of sexual stimulation or arousal, acts of human masturbation, sexual intercourse, sodomy,’ all kinds of things.”
One public speaker pointed out that applying certain standards would preclude the Bible from being included in school libraries.
“‘Your waist is a mound of wheat encircled by lilies,’” Suzanne Southard, the director of religious education for First Unitarian Universalist Church of West Volusia told the School Board, reading from the Song of Solomon, an erotic poem from the Old Testament. “‘Your breasts are like two fawns.’”
“It’s really going to be hard on the IB program to have a Bible removed from any of their schools,” Southard pointed out.
School Board Member Jessie Thompson objected to the characterization.
“Madam Chair, I have to say something in reference to the Bible. There are many sexual instances in this good book,” Thompson replied, laying her hand on a Bible in front of her. “However, the state statute specifically states the sexually graphic material in a book, and if you are being aroused sexually by the Bible, then you might be doing it wrong.”
Another public speaker disagreed.
“A comment was made that if you read that passage and you’re aroused, there’s something you’re not doing right. I beg to differ,” the public speaker shot back. “It’s a very explicit passage. Many people have been aroused by it, and yet managed to retain their faith.”
“The Bible is one of the most erotic books ever written,” Jennifer Howard said; addressing Thompson. Howard identified herself as a media specialist. “Priests use that to counsel married couples on what to do in the bedroom and out of the bedroom. So maybe you should read it for more comprehension to make things a little bit better in your life.”
Slaughterhouse-Five, a frequently challenged book since it was published in 1969, was one of the stranger examples read aloud. A passage was read by a speaker who identified himself as a former member of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
“I worked for the FBI, and during that time I investigated child sexual abuse material,” public speaker Steven Friend said. Friend went on to read passages from Slaughterhouse-Five.
“‘Billy made a noise like a small, rusty hinge. He had just emptied his seminal vesicles into Valencia,’” Friend read, before being cut off by Haynes.
“I heard someone say Slaughterhouse-Five. I’m interested in that it’s only the sex that was a problem. Not all the violence of war, which is what the book is about,” Southard said in her comments. “So all the issues need to be about sex.”
Many of the passages that included sexual situations were in fact about molestation — leading Haynes to cut off the last speaker who read passages from a book with an exhausted, “Please stop… I don’t want to hear any more about rape.”
But addressing molestation is something that proponents of the books said was important for children to have access to.
“If someone reads a book about molestation, there’s going to be something in that book that says ‘oh, like I was, like what happened to me,’ and maybe I can talk to my teacher about it,” Southard said. “Protecting your children from anything that is sexual is not protecting them. One in four women in this country is sexually assaulted whether you protect them from books or not. They’re being attacked. They need education.”
Media specialists again bristled at the implication that they were in some way providing pornography to children.
“Reading that little bit that you consider nasty because you don’t like the words that were used to describe that situation means that you didn’t read it as a whole,” media specialist Howard said. “You’re not doing what we teach our children to do in English, which is to read for comprehension and understanding.”
“This has nothing to do with our children,” Howard went on. “This is a bunch of adults who have had nothing to do over the pandemic, except look over what everybody else is doing and get in everybody else’s business.”
Like others, Howard pointed out that Volusia County Schools already has a robust vetting process, and processes in place for objections to books.
A board bemused
The School Board was at turns confused, disgusted and placating.
“I just wish we would follow our process,” Board Member Ruben Colón complained before the public comment portion of the meeting. “Not that I agree with the content. I think I’ve been very, very vocal about that, but we’ve got to follow our process.”
On the other hand, Haynes and Thompson were clear that they considered some school library books to be pornography.
“If there’s a book that’s pornographic in nature, and some of these are violently pornographic … we’ll pull that book off the shelf,” Thompson said.
“This is not what children should see,” Haynes said.
Board Member Carl Persis provided a different view.
“I respect the right of any parent that does not want their child to read a certain book … We never force library books on anyone’s child. At the same time, I would not want another parent to be able to tell me what my child cannot read,” Persis said. “I think it’s incumbent on this board, if we say we’re for parental rights, that we’re for all parental rights. I believe the state puts us in a very difficult position here.”
Board Member Anita Burnette summed up the situation.
“I think each of us all want what’s best for kids, and sometimes that idea is not always the same, but our goal is the same, and that’s what’s best for our kids and students,” Burnette said.
Different counties, different standards
Obscenity is notoriously difficult to pin down. The legal definition remains the same, a three-pronged approach called the Miller Test, named for a 1973 Supreme Court case. The Miller Test has three requirements for material to be judged obscene:
• The average person, applying contemporary community standards, would find, taken as a whole, it appeals to the prurient interest;
• Depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct as specifically defined herein; and
• Taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.
“Each community has its own community standards that can be applied to that definition,” School Board General Counsel Kevin Pendley told the board. “That is my explanation for why you would see variances between what is a community standard in one part of the state being different from another.”
For now, Volusia County’s “community standard” is anything but clear. Future meetings of the School Board could see groups of people reading passages from books they deem objectionable. If the School Board chair cuts them off, the books could be plucked from school libraries on that basis alone.