1200 Weimer Hall | P.O. Box 118405
Gainesville, FL 32611
(352) 392-5551

A service of the College of Journalism and Communications at the University of Florida.

© 2024 WUFT / Division of Media Properties
News and Public Media for North Central Florida
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

‘At least 90% of my time’: Book challenge policies continue to consume Alachua County school employees’ focus

The Library Advisory Committee meets Thursday and listens to District Media Specialist Patty Duval (center) list the objections by the petitioner for “Julian is a Mermaid.” The committee is pictured, clockwise starting to Duval's left: Kevin Berry, Director of Curriculum; Toni Griffin, School Counselor and Student Services; Renee Dickens, Parent; Elizabeth McConney, Parent; and Jon Rehm, Curriculum Specialist. (Sofia Zarran/WUFT News)

Two meetings this week put the focus on the amount of time and resources Alachua County Public Schools employees are spending on book challenges.

The Alachua County School Board on Tuesday postponed the removal of two books from public school libraries. The board intends to revisit the issue in a public hearing on June 18.

Subsequently, the district’s Library Advisory Committee on Thursday voted to keep two books on the shelves.

The books whose removals were postponed on Tuesday are “FADE” by Lisa McMann and “Empire of Storms” by Sara Maas. The books that were voted to remain on shelves Thursday afternoon are “Julian is a Mermaid” by Jessica Love and “Storm and Fury” by Jennifer L. Armentrout. Olivia Haley petitioned for the removal of all four of these books.

Haley, an undergraduate student at the University of Florida, has challenged 13 books since late February.

According to current school district policy, a parent of a student in the district or resident of the county has 30 days after the board’s adoption of specific instructional material to file a petition.

Haley said in an email response, “I believe all tax paying citizens and parents especially should have the right to question or challenge any protocols/material that is provided in the public schools. And that I hope with the new policy changes that the school district is currently making, tax paying citizens and parents still hold this right.”

Haley’s status as a petitioner within Alachua County, however, will change in the coming months.

A chart shows the number of book challenges the Alachua County Public Schools have received per month since September 2023. (Sofia Zarran/WUFT News)

In an amendment this year to a law passed in 2023, HB 1285 added restrictions to how often books can be challenged. Residents who do not have children within their respective school districts will not be allowed to petition more than one book a month. Limits on the petitions of parents at least one child in the school district have not been specified. The law will go into effect July 1.

District Media Specialist Patty Duval said she hopes to see fewer petitions in the coming months.

“It has taken up at least 90% of my time. In doing the research, and interpreting the law, and, you know, putting together the reviews, and the meetings, and the hearings, and reading the books,” Duval said after the Thursday advisory meeting.

Duval said the real purpose of the law, which is to allow parents to air genuine concerns with what is in school libraries and on their children’s curricula, hasn’t seemed to be fulfilled.

“I don't know that this is true, but I feel that some of the objections that are submitted are just — they didn't read the book. There’s a list. And they're just going down the list,” Duval said.

Petitioners like Olivia Haley have challenged books like “FADE” and “Empire of Storms” with objections such as:

  • The material depicts or describes sexual conduct as defined in Section 847.001(19)
  • The material is not suited to the student needs and their ability to comprehend the material.
  • The material is inappropriate for the grade level and age group for which it is used.

In the library advisory committee meeting, Duval and committee members considered what Duval called “suitability and appropriateness.” Committee members and the school board have agreed that sexual content in literature is not inappropriate in all cases.
HB 1069, which Gov. Ron Desantis signed in 2023 as part of what he called the “Let kids be kids package,” allowed parents or residents to challenge material that contains references to “sex” or “sexual conduct.”

As seen in this most recent advisory meeting, committee members have to consider what sexual references are appropriate for the age group in which the books are intended. The committee saw no specific references to sex or gender in “Julian is a Mermaid” and voted for it to remain. “Storm and Fury” was deemed appropriate for the middle-to-high school age range.

The library advisory committee meetings are open to the public, but there is no public comment. Petitioner Haley was not at Thursday's meeting.

Current state law and board of education policy also has no way for someone to object to having a book removed. According to Duval, the only voices being heard about book removals from school libraries are those who want the books removed.

Duval has spent most of her time in the past year managing the reviews of the 41 book petitions Alachua County has received in the past year. She said before the challenges she used to do more work with school-level media specialists in creating curricula and planning tools.

School Board Member Dr. Sarah Rockwell proposed at the Tuesday night meeting to add to current policy a way to trigger a revision of removed books each time the Florida Department of Education passes a new rule or change in guidance to all school districts.

“This is relatively new legislation that was not written with a great deal of specificity. It’s been very confusing,” Rockwell said.

She added, “I want to make sure that that's just automatically triggered by our policy so that we don’t have books removed from our shelves in error.”

Sofia is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.