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Media specialist turned techie codes system to ensure school library books follow state law

At Patty Duval’s house, the C-word is banned.

The 'C' in classroom libraries, of course.

As the Alachua County Public Schools media specialist, Duval, 61, said her work in education today is very different than what it was 16 years ago. Naturally, that was before a state law required Florida school districts to assess each book on classroom shelves and before Duval programmed a way to make that process easier.

”We just had to do our best to put a positive spin on it and say, ‘We can do this — we are going to make sure that books are in our kids' hands.’”

Since July 2022, every school district in the state has been evaluating all of its classroom materials and posting them online to follow the K-12 Education law. In Alachua County, that means cataloging over 100,000 books in elementary schools alone. To comply, some districts like Clay County and Martin County first resorted to removing books from classroom library shelves.

But that’s not Duval’s style.

Instead, she embarked on a six-month-long process, programming a system to determine which of the county’s reads follow standards set in legislation like the Parental Rights in Education Act, often dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” law. Duval has no previous coding experience.

“I kept telling everybody it was gonna work — ‘It's gonna be great, you guys, it's gonna be great,’” she said. “I really didn't know.”

Getting started

All school media professionals in the state received training in January in accordance with the K-12 Education law, which Duval said kick-started her course of action with the county’s elementary schools. She chose to start in the younger grades because elementary teachers had more titles to sort through.

“Who would imagine that a kindergarten teacher would have 1,200 books on their shelf?” she asked.

Classroom materials had to be published within a reasonable time. It was March. Duval exported the book titles, authors and ISBNs of one classroom library into a spreadsheet — a reasonable enough start, she said.

One spreadsheet became a series. But despite all the data being right there, Duval said she still wasn’t happy. She feared tricky formulas would grow confusing once other school librarians became involved. Enter code-writing software Google Apps Scripts.

After diving through dozens of YouTube tutorials and months of fine-tuning her code, Duval found a unified way to categorize every book in the county’s elementary schools.

But more work remained.

Besides finding a way to approach the law, Duval said she also had to teach county media specialists not to fear it.

“The training that the state provided for us in January did place a lot of emphasis on pornography, and that is a felony,” she said. “It really had media specialists feeling a little anxious.”

Under state law, it’s illegal for classroom materials to depict sexually explicit content, including sexual intercourse, abuse and masturbation. Under the Parental Rights in Education Act, it’s also illegal for classroom instruction to include discussions on sexual or gender identity.

Consequently, Duval said librarians worried they’d face legal trouble if they misinterpreted the law while sorting through books. With practice, she said they felt much more at ease.

Book challenges 

Amid reports of book banning in districts throughout the state, Alachua County has seemingly remained untouched. Though parents were always able to challenge education materials, none have done so.

Until earlier this month.

“Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out” by Susan Kuklin was removed from the school district after a parent challenged it because of sexually explicit content.

The parent also challenged “Thirteen Reasons Why,” “Being Transgender (Living Proud! Growing Up LGBTQ)," “Understanding Sexual Identity: A Book for Gay and Lesbian Teens and Their Friends” and “A For Activist,” found at Terwilliger Elementary School.

Following the law, each school district develops its own plan to address book challenges. In Alachua County, each school has a library advisory committee of parents, teachers and sometimes students who conclude whether a challenged book is removed. If the committee determines the book can remain in schools, the parent who challenged the title can address it with a district committee if they wish.

Duval said “Being Transgender” and “Understanding Sexual Identity” don’t violate state standards. The Gainesville High committee decided to keep the books, and the parent who challenged the titles is taking their complaint to the district level.

The Gainesville High committee plans to address the complaint brought against the book “Thirteen Reasons Why.” The title violates state standards because of sexually explicit content, Duval said.

Duval said her code doesn’t highlight whether books have been challenged.

Navigating the “island”

Even with Duval’s system in place, some media specialists are still feeling the burden of meticulous title sorting.

Tia Mosby, the Hidden Oak Elementary librarian, said completing one classroom list can take three hours.

“I never thought that this would be what my job would actually entail,” she said.

Mosby, 50, said she doesn’t mind the work because it helps who she considers to be the best part of the job: the kids. Still, she said she doesn’t know a single colleague who isn’t overwhelmed.

“When you’re a media specialist at a school," Duval said, “you're on an island.”

Ellen Meeker, the Carolyn Beatrice Parker Elementary librarian, said another challenge for elementary school media specialists is balancing book sorting while teaching and forming lesson plans.

“We want to put books in kids' hands, and this is just kind of a roadblock,” she said. “But it's not deterred any of us.”

Meeker, 56, assisted Duval in tweaking the code this summer. A media specialist for the past 15 years, she said this process of categorizing books won’t ever be finished as teachers continue to build out their classroom libraries.

“I hope I never have to do it to this level,” Meeker said. “I have never taken on anything like this before.”

Next Steps

Duval said she hopes her program will be rolled into middle and high schools by the end of October.

The district may not have to fund the initiative as it did for elementary media specialists.

Duval taught school librarians how to use her system in two three-day trainings — a workshop that cost the school district $11,000 to pay for substitutes, she said.

Because librarians at middle and high schools don't have teaching responsibilities in addition to their media work, it’s likely substitutes won’t be necessary this time.

Though it’s not a product for market, Duval said she would use her system to guide other state media specialists as they grapple with the new challenges to their jobs. She said she frequents library groups on Facebook, often wondering if page posters have nowhere better to seek help.

“I want to be that person so that they don't feel like they're on an island,” she said.

Lauren is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing