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Ormond Beach Observer Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2022 3 months ago

Volusia County Schools outlines process to vet library books; parents to choose level of access

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With new laws restricting the content of school library books having gone into effect on July 1, school districts around the state have been given until June 30, 2023 to be in compliance.
by: Jarleene Almenas Senior Editor

As the Volusia County School Board was presented on Tuesday, Aug. 30, with the updated procedure on how to vet books in school libraries, navigate the process in case a book was later challenged, and how the three levels of student book access — unlimited, limited and no access to books at all — will work, School Board member Ruben Colon asked, "How the heck do you enforce this?"

"How does a media specialist stop a sixth grader from going and and grabbing that book, and sitting down and reading it when their parent has said they can't check it out?" Colon said. "... Ultimately, all it's going to take is one parent who said, 'I don't want my child to have access to this,' and now they're going to go pull the book and they're going to go pull the book and say, 'Look what I read.'"

The public will "drag that media center through the mud," Colon further illustrated. 

With new laws restricting the content of library books for students having gone into effect on July 1, school districts around the state have been given until June 30, 2023 to be in compliance. For Volusia County Schools, that means new training for media specialists regarding the purchase of new books after Jan. 1, 2023, providing access to any community member wanting to review books or instructional materials, and submitting a list of materials to the Florida Department of Education in June 2023 that were objected to, removed or discontinued, among other new procedures. 

The district already had a challenge process in place; The district updated it to come into compliance with the new laws. 

Though Kristine Smith, specialist with the district's Media Services and Instructional Materials division, said that concerns are often first tried to be resolved with a conversation.

"Many of our parent community concerns are solved before the challenge process is ever needed," Smith said. "If a parent has a concern about the library, the media specialist in the school often will work up with a mutually-agreeable solution."

But if a solution isn't agreed upon, the formal challenge process includes paperwork to be filed and a meeting by the School Media Advisory Committee to evaluate the material and make a decision, which will be provided to the complainant in writing. If the individual is unhappy with the result, a request is then made for a district level committee to meet, and the superintendent will decide if the school's committee decision is upheld or whether it will proceed to the district level committee. Then, within 15 working days of the district committee's report, according to the district's presentation, the superintendent will make the final decision and provide it to the individual in writing.

"I see a future that's very bleak. Because I think what we do in education to have student success and student problem-solving, students have to be able to choose. How do they know what to choose if they don't know what they like or what they don't like?"

Linda Cuthbert, School Board member

When asked to clarify the procedure by Colon, who wondered if the book would remain on the shelf or available to students while it was being challenged, Deputy Superintendent Rachel Hazel cited a recent example where a book was brought to Colon's attention for removal (the book's title was not disclosed at the meeting). Hazel explained that the district first looks into how many media centers have a copy and how many times the book has been checked out. In this example, she said the book was only in one media center and hadn't been checked out for over two-and-a-half years.

Media specialists reviewed the book and pulled it. 

"We have a list of books that have been brought to our attention that we're going through and looking and seeing, and there's going to be some of those that are going to be immediately removed, and there's going to be some that probably go through this process," Hazel said. 

In addition, an opt-out link will be made available in September, where parents will be allowed to choose an option for the level of access their student is able to have for library materials. If parents choose the "limited" option, school staff will seek further clarification. If the parent chooses "no access," the student would not be able to check out library books from the school. For middle school students seeking to check out Young Adult fiction, the district's preexisting permission slip form would still need to be signed even if they choose the "unlimited" option.

"I see a future that's very bleak," School Board member Linda Cuthbert said. "Because I think what we do in education to have student success and student problem-solving, students have to be able to choose. How do they know what to choose if they don't know what they like or what they don't like?"

"I have a lot of faith in our system. There are going to be some parents for whatever reasons that may object to something that is on the shelf, clearly. You're going to have over 90% of the parents that are going to say 'I don't have any problem with that book. It's been there. It's fine.'"

Carl Persis, School Board member

She was also concerned, as a former English teacher, about the teachers who wish to add supplemental reading as an assignment to enrich their curriculum and the hurdles they may face to do so. She is hoping further clarification comes from DOE in the future. 

Colon was doubtful that such direction from the state will come. He stressed having a process in place to protect teachers who do use supplemental material to teach their classes, particularly in AP and other advanced classes, and prevent them from facing backlash from the public. 

School Board member Carl Persis said during his time as principal, he only had one book in 1989 go through the district's challenge process due to a line of dialogue with profanity. And in the end, the superintendent decided the book should stay on the shelf. He said he didn't anticipate any major changes to the process, and that the state law may have simply formalized it. 

"I have a lot of faith in our system," Persis said. "... There are going to be some parents for whatever reasons that may object to something that is on the shelf, clearly. You're going to have over 90% of the parents that are going to say 'I don't have any problem with that book. It's been there. It's fine.' Parents get more upset about a parent dictating what their child can read than objecting to what's on the shelf, so as long as we have this open process ... we seem to make all of this work."

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