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News / Nation & World

Florida schools got hundreds of book complaints — mostly from 2 people

By Ian Hodgson, Tampa Bay Times
Published: September 3, 2023, 6:05am

TAMPA, Fla. — The topics came up again and again in hundreds of book complaints received by Florida school districts over the last year.

Indoctrination. Pedophilia. The LGBTQ+ agenda.

Those who submitted the complaints say the books in question can harm children, and they want them removed from school libraries.

But while their movement has grabbed headlines, it may not be widespread. Most of Florida’s 67 school districts didn’t log a single formal complaint about a book. That’s based on a Tampa Bay Times analysis, the most comprehensive review of book complaints across the state.

Of the roughly 1,100 complaints recorded in Florida since July 2022, more than 700 came from two counties — Escambia in the western Panhandle and Clay near Jacksonville. Together the two districts make up less than 3% of the state’s total public school enrollment.

About 600 of the complaints came from two people — a Clay County dad and a Pensacola high school teacher.

The data illustrates how a tiny minority of activists across the state can overwhelm school districts while shaping the national conversation over what books belong on school library shelves.

The Times requested all book complaints received by Florida school districts since July 1, 2022, when guidelines governing the challenges went into effect. Sixty-two districts responded, representing nearly 99% of public school students.

The law required districts to report complaints to the Florida Department of Education no later than June 30. The data, once compiled by the state, is intended as a reference for school districts to consider as they decide which books to keep. The complaints reviewed by the Times involve 680 books by more than 480 authors.

The state’s 10 largest districts, including Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco, each reported complaints on fewer than 15 titles.

“Totally hijacked”

Bruce Friedman, a 57-year-old New York City transplant, is responsible for more than 400 complaints received by the Clay County school district. He told Fox News that his interest in education stems from the “considerable harm” done to his now-15-year-old son while attending New York’s public schools.

He founded the Florida chapter of No Left Turn in Education, which opposes “progressive indoctrination” in schools, after watching a segment about the group on Tucker Carlson’s show.

Friedman garnered his own appearance on Fox News after his mic was cut at a November school board meeting as he prepared to read a passage from “Lucky,” Alice Sebold’s 1999 memoir of her own sexual assault.

Since then, Friedman said he has spent hundreds of hours combing through a database of more than 5,000 titles scoured from the internet and filing complaints for those he finds objectionable. He declined to be interviewed for this story.

Many of Friedman’s written complaints provide little more explanation than “Protect Children!” and “Damaged Souls!” Some of his filed complaints appear to be direct photocopies with only the title and authors changed, the Times found.

“We have probably spent more resources on Bruce than anyone else in the history of the school district,” said Roger Dailey, Clay County’s assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction. He said Friedman contacts the district nearly every day. Dailey received two messages from Friedman while on a phone call with the Times.

“I’ve had weeks totally hijacked by this book thing,” said Dailey, who personally reviews each of the complaints received by the school district — a task that typically takes 10 to 15 hours per week.

More staffing would help, but the budget is tight and few would want the job anyway, Dailey said. Whatever his decision on a book complaint, he said he’s branded as either a “jack-booted censor” or an enabler who put the “bad book back on the shelf.”

“It’s not a responsibility I feel comfortable delegating,” he said.

Dailey conceded that Friedman has found objectively problematic books, clearly in violation of state law. As a parent of three, he said he often gets where Friedman is coming from.

The district removed 181 titles as of June 30, including “Watchmen,” Alan Moore’s 1986 graphic novel depicting often ultraviolent and morally ambiguous superheroes.

But recent complaints have gotten harder to comprehend, Dailey said. Friedman filed one against the children’s picture book “Arthur,” complaining that it depicted a game of “spin the bottle.”

Book challenges like that “undermine Bruce’s credibility,” Dailey said. “It makes you wonder what would satisfy someone who takes umbrage with those titles.”

Most frustrating to Dailey is that removing even clearly inappropriate books addresses a problem that doesn’t exist. Most parents have zero interest in the subject, he said. When the district of 39,000 students allowed parents to limit library access for their kids last year, only six opted to.

“The circulation of these books for high school kids is essentially zero,” he said. “I wish we had a problem of kids reading so many books that they’re coming across problematic subjects. And it breaks my heart to say that.”

Some “pretty adult stuff”

In Escambia County, flanked on the north and west by Alabama, Pensacola high school teacher Vicki Baggett has submitted at least 178 complaints, accounting for 80% of those reported by the district.

Some of Baggett’s complaints include some “pretty adult stuff,” said Pensacola Methodist pastor Rick Branch, a frequent school board attendee who supports library access. It’s worth discussing which books should be reserved for older students, he said, but many of Baggett’s complaints amount to vague allegations of “indoctrination.”

Baggett did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

In her complaint against “And Tango Makes Three,” a children’s picture book about two male penguins in the Central Park Zoo who raise an adopted hatchling, Baggett wrote that the story promoted an “LGBTQ agenda using penguins.”

The mostly white and working-class county in the stretch of coast locals call “Floribama” is deeply religious and very conservative, Branch said. But Baggett is still an extreme minority, he added, garnering more annoyance than approval among even the county’s most traditional-values Republicans.

Baggett’s supporters equate books like “Tango” with putting Playboy magazines in elementary schools, Branch said. “I think they are completely misunderstanding what the issue is, maybe intentionally.”

On each of her 178 complaints, Baggett indicated she had read “the material in its entirety.” But the Times found that language in many of the complaints appears to be pulled from reviews published by the website BookLooks.org, which flags titles for “objectionable content, including profanity, nudity, and sexual content.”

According to a state filing, the website was launched last year by Emily Maikisch, a member of Moms for Liberty, an increasingly influential group that has been active in the movement to challenge books. BookLooks.org claims no affiliation with Moms for Liberty and does not support book bans, according to its website.

The line between what is objectionable and what are grounds to remove a book isn’t difficult, said Dailey, the Clay County assistant superintendent. The definition of obscene content is clearly laid out in Florida statute 847.012, which describes it as any “visual representation or image of a person or portion of the human body which depicts nudity or sexual conduct, sexual excitement, sexual battery, bestiality, or sadomasochistic abuse and which is harmful to minors.”

While the 2022 “Parental Rights in Education” bill bars any discussion of gender or sexuality in classroom instruction, that does not extend to the library, Dailey said.

But ambiguous legislation, overwrought rhetoric and even willful ignorance has so muddled the discourse around books that both sides tend to conflate the laws to suit their own interests, he said.

Straying from a strict adherence to the laws can have consequences.

In Escambia County, the school board’s decision to repeatedly overrule the district’s own media specialists is the basis of a lawsuit from free-speech advocate PEN America and Penguin Random House, the nation’s largest book publisher. The suit, filed in May, alleges that books “singled out for possible removal are disproportionately books by non-white and/or LGBTQ authors, which address topics related to race or LGBTQ identity.”

“Weeding” books

While books discussing race and LGBTQ+ issues have captured headlines, a large share of complaints submitted to school districts targeted titles with explicit violence, sex and drug use, records show.

“Sold” by Patricia McCormick received complaints in 11 districts. The book tells the story of a 13-year-old Nepali girl who is sold by her family into sexual slavery. Multiple complaints cited passages depicting her rape and abuse at the hands of her captors.

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McCormick did not respond to a request for comment. But in a May op-ed in The New York Times she wrote that banning her book is “disrespectful to the teenagers who want and in some cases need to read it.”

The depictions of sexual violence in the book were not meant to “arouse” or “stimulate” readers, she said, citing her research interviewing abused women and girls in India and Nepal, as well as her own experience with assault.

Novelist Ellen Hopkins said in an interview that she’s used to receiving complaints about her books but had not been called a pedophile until recently. Parents would occasionally call or email with concerns, she said. “Now you have people who’ve never read the book showing up at school board meetings making all kinds of crazy accusations.”

Hopkins’ books received 66 complaints across 18 titles in 13 Florida counties, records show. Her novel “Tricks,” which follows five teenagers who fall into prostitution, received complaints in 10 districts and was banned or restricted in at least five.

Her 2004 novel “Crank,” loosely based on her daughter’s addiction to crystal meth, received complaints in nine districts and was banned or restricted in at least four.

Most of the complaints against Hopkins’ books reviewed by the Times point to depictions of drug use, violence and teenage sex. Their graphic nature is meant to help kids make better decisions by showing them consequences of bad choices, Hopkins said.

At the end of every book is a page listing resources where kids can get help, she added. “I’ve talked to tens of thousands of kids,” she said, “and I know my books help people.”

While most districts received no book complaints during the 12 months starting in July 2022, there are other ways to make books disappear.

Administrators and school boards across the state reported selectively “weeding” controversial titles from libraries, citing lack of circulation or poor condition of the books.

The Lake County schools system received only one objection, but district officials “administratively removed” 22 books in the past year, according to spokesperson Sherri Owens.

In Flagler County, at least nine titles were weeded before receiving a complaint, records show. The district did not provide a full list of books removed and did not give a reason for those decisions.

In March, St. Lucie Superintendent Jon Prince pulled the graphic novel “Gender Queer” by Maia Kobabe after Gov. Ron DeSantis criticized the book in a news conference.

School districts are overly cautious when facing ambiguous directives from the state, said Jonathan Friedman, director of free expression and education programs at the free-speech organization PEN America.

That environment of uncertainty empowers activists like Bruce Friedman and Vicki Baggett to lodge book complaints, he said. Administrators can either restrict access to controversial books to preempt or mollify activists, or face the overwhelming task of reviewing and processing potentially hundreds of complaints.

Rather than trusting librarians and media specialists, he said, many counties have given way to a vocal minority, effectively banning books without expert input and with little transparency or accountability.

Without guidance and clarification from state lawmakers, districts will remain in deadlock. And Escambia County isn’t the only district that halted their deliberations in the face of an overwhelming volume of complaints.

In Jefferson County, all school media are closed until the district can inventory the catalog, said Superintendent Eydie Triquet. Santa Rosa County quarantined all books that received a complaint, according to the district’s website.

Hillsborough County has received only two formal complaints: “This Book is Gay” by Juno Dawson, which the school board voted to remove from middle schools in March, and “Being a Girl” by Hayley Long, which they kept. That excludes dozens of informal complaints submitted by the group Citizens Defending Freedom in Hillsborough.

Despite the group’s claims that the district had “quarantined” controversial books, the district’s policy is to keep books available until the board makes a ruling, district spokesperson Tanya Arja said.

As complaints pile up and districts remain in deadlock, specialists like Michelle White have had enough.

White, who left her job as Escambia County’s media service coordinator in June, said the lack of guidance and school boards’ constant overruling of specialist recommendations made her work at the district untenable.

One of her last recommendations to the board was to cover library shelves with black paper until specialists could review the more than 100,000 titles in the district’s 49 schools. When students arrived for the first day of class earlier this month, the libraries were closed.

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