Florida school district ‘bans books with LGBTQ characters entirely’

Florida school district ‘bans books with LGBTQ characters entirely’

Controversial 'Don't Say Gay' law sparks book bans in Florida schools

by Suswati Basu

In a shocking turn of events, public school librarians in Charlotte County, Florida, have been instructed to remove all books featuring LGBTQ characters or themes from their school and classroom libraries. This startling directive came from the school district superintendent, Mark Vianello, and the school board’s attorney, Michael McKinley. The guidance, obtained through a public records request by the Florida Freedom to Read Project (FFTRP) and shared with Popular Information, has sparked a heated debate about the implications of the state’s “Don’t Say Gay” law and its far-reaching consequences.

The FFTRP sought electronic records concerning classroom and library materials decisions, and the documents revealed a July 24 conversation between Superintendent Vianello and district librarians, known as media specialists in Florida. In the discussion, the librarians looked for clarity on how to apply the “Don’t Say Gay” law to all grade levels, questioning whether books with LGBTQ characters would need to be removed.

According to the document, Vianello and McKinley responded with a resounding “Yes.” This guidance explicitly stated that books with LGBTQ characters should be removed, even if they contained no explicit sexual content. When the librarians inquired about retaining such books as long as they lacked explicit sexual scenes and descriptions and didn’t serve as “how to” manuals for LGBTQ+ individuals, they were met with another firm “No.” The directive from Vianello and McKinley was clear: books with LGBTQ+ characters were not to be included in classroom or school library media centres.

Read: School book bans: alarming rise as Florida takes lead

Moreover, Vianello and McKinley went further, advising that teachers should prevent books with LGBTQ characters and themes from entering the classroom, even if students had self-selected them for silent reading. Their stance on this matter was unambiguous – books featuring these characters and themes could not exist in the school environment.

First Amendment rights vs. “Don’t Say Gay” law

This controversy stems from the “Don’t Say Gay” law, a piece of legislation signed by Governor Ron DeSantis. The law prohibits classroom instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity for students in prekindergarten through grade 8, with extensions to higher grades only in specific cases. The revised Rule 6A-10.081, issued by the Florida Department of Education earlier this year, reinforces these restrictions, further limiting discussions related to LGBTQ+ topics in schools.

“Shall not intentionally provide classroom instruction to students in prekindergarten through grade 8 on sexual orientation or gender identity”

Rule 6A-10.081, Florida Adminstrative Code & Administrative Register

Governor DeSantis has consistently maintained that allegations of his policies leading to book bans are a “hoax.” He has argued that only “pornographic and inappropriate materials” are being removed from Florida libraries. However, in Charlotte County, these policies are being used to justify the removal of all books featuring LGBTQ characters, even when no sexual content is present.

Read: Florida school board: toss Penguin Random House book ban lawsuit

In response to these actions, a spokesperson for Charlotte County Schools explained that books with LGBTQ characters were removed due to the use of elementary school libraries as classrooms for elective courses. This unusual classification of libraries as classrooms prompted the school board attorney to advise against making books with LGBTQ themes available in these spaces.

Chaos in Florida libraries due to lack of clarity and inconsistencies

Banning all books with LGBTQ characters raises serious legal issues. In June, the authors of the children’s book “And Tango Makes Three” sued the Lake County School Board and the Florida Department of Education for removing their book from K-3 library shelves. This book tells the true story of two male penguins raising an adopted chick, without containing any sexual content. The lawsuit argued that removing the book violated students’ First Amendment rights and the authors’ right to freedom of expression.

In response to this lawsuit, Lake County Superintendent Diane Kornegay received guidance from the Florida Department of Education, stating that the age restriction on sexual orientation and gender identity does not apply to library books. As a result, “And Tango Makes Three” was reinstated in Lake County.

Despite repeated requests from advocacy groups like FFTRP, the Florida Department of Education has refused to clarify how the “Don’t Say Gay” anti-LGBTQ law applies to school and library books. This lack of clarity has led to confusion and inconsistency across the state.

Advocacy for LGBTQ+ representation in education

Stephana Ferrell, co-founder of FFTRP, emphasised the importance of inclusive libraries, telling Popular Information, “Every child deserves to have their lives reflected in the books available in their public school classroom or library.” The failure of the Florida Department of Education to address the situation has resulted in chaos, with “And Tango Makes Three” remaining banned in Escambia County, and similar policies in practice in other Florida school districts.

Broward County School District, the nation’s sixth-largest school district, is one such district where nearly half of the books removed or restricted feature LGBTQ+ themes. For instance, the children’s book “A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo,” which tells a fictional story about former Vice President Mike Pence’s family bunny, was banned due to its “gender identity content,” despite having no explicit or sexual material.

In a survey conducted by Popular Information, at least 16 school districts in Florida were found to have banned books with LGBTQ characters.

In response to these developments, a spokesperson for the Charlotte County School District stated that books featuring LGBTQ characters are accessible in the media center for grades 9-12, though not for classroom instruction. While they may not be used for teaching, these books are available for individual study and can be borrowed by students. The spokesperson noted that the document served as a training resource and provided further guidance to educators.

As the debate surrounding the “Don’t Say Gay” law continues to unfold, many advocates for LGBTQ+ rights and freedom of expression are pushing for greater clarity and inclusivity within Florida’s school libraries. The struggle over what books should be available to students in public schools has ignited a larger conversation about the boundaries of free speech and education in the Sunshine State.

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