Heated debate over “book banning” takes over school board meeting

People pack the auditorium as they hold signs during the “Citizen Emergency Rally To Stop Pornographic Books” in Marion County Public Schools libraries rally during a meeting of the Marion County Public School Board in Ocala, Fla. on Tuesday, March 28, 2023. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette] 2023.

Home » Education
Posted March 29, 2023 | By Caroline Brauchler

The audience came in by the busload for Tuesday’s Marion County School Board meeting with one topic in mind for discussion: the content of books in school libraries.

Thirty-seven speakers addressed the board to either oppose the banning of books in the district’s libraries, what many called censorship, or support the removal of what some deemed “pornographic” books from schools.

The discussion stemmed from comments made by Gov. Ron DeSantis earlier this month. During a press conference on March 8, DeSantis sought to debunk what he said was a “hoax’’ that books were being banned in public schools. He said libraries were not being emptied; only books containing pornographic, violent or inappropriate content would be removed.

DeSantis mentioned Marion County as one of the school districts with a book called “Flamer” available to students. “Flamer” and another book mentioned by the governor, “This Book is Gay,” have already been removed from all MCPS media centers and libraries, according to the libraries’ “objections” list.

“Flamer” tells the story of a 14-year-old gay Filipino boy at summer camp navigating self-acceptance and bullying. “Flamer” has been removed from shelves based on the claim that it is inappropriate and pornographic, with references to masturbation and genitals.

Superintendent Diane Gullett stated at the beginning of the meeting that the district’s libraries follow state law and school board policy regarding content and that parents and families may search library catalogs, read policies, restrict titles from their children and object to library materials if they see fit.

The process to challenge library materials or to restrict the content that one’s child may read can be found on the MCPS Library Media Program website.

Gullett ensured the audience that the district is in compliance with House Bill 1467, saying that all school media specialists involved in the selection of library materials have completed an online training program. The bill also dictates that all material must be free of pornography, which is defined by “the depiction of erotic behavior intended to cause sexual excitement,” according to Merriam-Webster.

Local Republican organizations, led by Randy Osborne, president of the Florida Eagle Forum, put out a call to action for people to attend the board meeting and speak in support of banning books. Transportation was offered via a bus from the Ocala Christian Academy.

Many speakers took the stance that banning books from the school system equated to censorship. If a parent is uncomfortable with the content their child is reading, they should be the ones to decide rather than authorities making a decision on behalf of all parents.

“It is unsafe, discriminatory, unjust and intolerant to seek to erase the voices and lived experiences of what it’s like growing up gay in an increasingly more hostile environment for these people,” said Sarah Klitenick, parent of a kindergartener in MCPS.

A large majority of the books on the “objections” list center on LGBTQ stories, notably history books. Among the titles that are currently under evaluation are “The Gay Liberation Movement: Before and After Stonewall,” “The Early History of the Gay Rights Movement” and “Transgender Activists and Celebrities.”

“Children identify as who they identify as, and no book is going to change that,’’ said Vickie Treulieb, North Marion Middle School English and acting teacher. “What books do is allow for visibility and diversity. All students deserve access to the books that have been challenged in “quarantine.”

Other speakers shared major concerns about explicit sexual content or pornographic books, not exclusive to LGBTQ content or classic novels.

“I’m not here to ban regular books like “Matilda,” that’s up for a parent to decide. The books that are that are better sexual content, sexual excitement, sexual battery and sexual abuse, it’s those kinds of books,” said Brigitte Smith, Marion County Republican Executive Committee chair.

The school board policy adheres to these standards and has a review process to address complaints about certain books.

Claims of books “indoctrinating” children were abundant, with several speakers saying that it is a parent’s right to teach children certain topics within the home rather than being exposed to it at school.

“We want our students to be well-educated with knowledge of things that are important and relevant, and focusing on personal pronouns and sexual dysmorphia is not why we pay taxes,” said speaker Barbara Schmidt. “Exposing students to books in the library about gender bending ideology is a form of indoctrination, because you normalize it in the reading material you provide to them.”

The school board condemned the exposure of pornography to children and said the district will continue to follow the statutes, policies and procedures in place to ensure the quality of the material in the MCPS library system.

“I don’t think any of us as parents want our kids to read inappropriate things that are not age-appropriate,” said Board Member Rev. Eric Cummings. “However, I listened to all of this tonight, and I saw a lot and heard a lot of things that to me was just downright sensationalism.”

Board Chair Allison Campbell implored the audience to seek common ground on this important issue.

“Regardless of our differences,’’ she said, “as long as we can have dialogue rather than shouting at each other, we can have productive outcomes.”

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