Orange County school board reluctantly approves book ban policies, with hands tied by the state

The district’s general counsel confirmed in an Orlando meeting they’ll have to revise their policies, thanks to new law that makes it easier to challenge books in schools

click to enlarge Orange County school board reluctantly approves book ban policies, with hands tied by the state
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As Florida school districts continue to crack down on books deemed too controversial for public school libraries and classrooms (mostly the ones with LGBTQ+ characters), members of the Orange County School Board last week reluctantly agreed to revised policies that are meant to help keep the district in compliance with state law on school library materials.

School board member Karen Castor-Dentel, representing District 6, was the only board member to vote against the new policies, arguing the policies contain gaps that "favor those who wish to ban books."

Orange County is home to Orlando, and both city and county are Democratic strongholds where rainbow LGBTQ flags are hung with, well, actual pride, and drag performers are celebrated members of the local community, despite intimidation tactics from the state.

Education laws passed by state legislators last year made it easier for books in schools to be pulled from shelves, but the rollout of local district policies to comply with them has been painstaking and perplexing for district staff, as new rules from the state continue to complicate the process.

“It’s just so confusing,” said board member Melissa Byrd on Tuesday, “not knowing what was gonna happen from the [Florida Department of Education] from day to day.”

The district’s revised policies, developed in the wake of laws branded as enhancements to “parental rights” in education, have been months in the making.

And, following the passage of a bill (HB 1069) that will make book challenges even easier and require the immediate removal of books challenged for containing “sexual content,” district staff confirmed to the board that it doesn’t end here.

“We are going to have to bring back further revisions for you this summer,” said Amy Envall, the district's general counsel, “based on the legislation.”

For over a year, school board members have met for hours-long work sessions to discuss the process through which residents of Orange County — not necessarily actual parents of school-aged children — can challenge the presence of certain books in public schools.

Alicia Farrant, a parent of five and a member of Moms for Liberty elected to the Orange County school board last year, was one of the people who made complaints.

Farrant personally called for the removal of Gender Queer, a memoir that’s been named the “most challenged” book in the U.S. She's also pushed for the district to change its policy on transgender bathroom rules.

Aside from books containing explicitly LGBTQ-related content, Farrant called for the removal of John Green’s award-winning novel Looking for Alaska, noting the book contains “lots of talk about girls’ bodies, drinking, smoking pot, lots of cussing,” as noted by columnist Scott Maxwell.

As it is, four books have been banned district-wide: Gender Queer, This Book Is Gay, Let's Talk About It and Perfectly Normal.

“Initially, this began with an effort to hunt for pornography on our shelves, and no one on this board wants pornography in our schools,” said school board member Karen Castor-Dentel, who taught in public schools for 15 years.

“But it didn't stop there,” she added. “Now books representing topics with LGBTQ characters, African American history, civil rights history, the Holocaust, and others have been challenged and are pulled around the state.”

Popular Information reported last week that several books pulled from the shelves in Florida school districts for being “pornographic” are actually anything but, and more importantly, don’t meet the state’s legal definition of “harmful” content illegal to distribute to minors.

That’s despite claims from Gov. DeSantis that Florida is only “taking a stand” against “pornography and sexual material” in classrooms.

School board member Maria Salamanca said that books being challenged in Florida school districts, including her own, are “a Trojan horse.”

Salamanca herself, also elected to the school board last year, identifies as LGBTQ, and has shared her own personal story of growing up in a Catholic household where being gay or transgender was not accepted.

“We’re now talking about issues that our society suddenly feels very uncomfortable with,” she said Tuesday, “even though we just became accepting that we exist.”

Orange Classroom Teachers Association president Clinton McCracken, who’s also openly gay, told Orlando Weekly that Florida’s new education laws have created confusion for the district's educators.

The Orange CTA, an educators union, represents thousands of teachers across the district, identified as one of the largest in the nation.

While the district has answered questions from teachers about what is and isn’t allowed in Ron DeSantis’ Florida, some teachers, including those who identify as LGBTQ themselves, have “self-censored,” said McCracken, fearful of potential blowback.

Teachers have removed rainbow flag buttons from their bags when they go to school, he said, worried that Moms for Liberty members could be filming them to later accuse them of “indoctrination.”

“All of it is unnecessary,” said McCracken. “All of these laws are to fix a problem that didn't exist.”

But not everyone agrees.

During last Tuesday's school board meeting, Farrant parroted DeSantis' claim of a manufactured “book ban hoax” by accusing book ban critics of “gaslighting.”

The use of the term "book ban," Farrant said, “is a way to gaslight those who are just wanting to make sure that there are boundaries, and that there’s protections for every student that is in our schools.”

Her comment came after multiple high school students, largely from Winter Park High School, spoke out against the removal of books from schools during the meeting’s public comment portion.

“If you continue to let books be banned by the power of the so-called 'review by parents,' then you are doing a great injustice to kids like me, for those who long for a place to belong in this crazy world,” said Lily Stahlman, a ninth-grade student at Winter Park High School. “By banning books, you're robbing children of a chance to figure out their true identity.”

A crackdown on sexual education in schools, and on books that depict reproductive organs in the name of sexual education, is also a concern of students.

“We need to teach our kids about sex in a proper way,” said Nia Larkins, a 15-year-old student who also attends Winter Park High. “These books that you’re banning are books that talk about these subjects in ways that are delicate and helpful to these kids’ minds, and that help them grow.”

“If we want to learn a book that is factually correct, maybe we should start teaching 1984 by George Orwell,” quipped another student, to snaps of approval from others in the audience. “Because that's where our state and nation is going.”

Frustration was also voiced over the hundreds of hours school district staff have spent on coming up with and revising these policies, thanks to new state mandates, while other issues — such as literacy rates, students’ mental health and gun violence in schools — remain valid concerns competing for time and attention.

“Thirty people have died in 19 school shootings since the beginning of 2023,” said Will Larkins, a nonbinary student activist and senior at Winter Park High. “Anyway,” they added, “let's talk about book banning!”

Multiple school board members also echoed this concern. “I would say we have spent well over 100, maybe even 200 hours on this,” said board member Pam Gould, who recently launched a bid for a seat on the Orange County commission.

“Here's what I wish we had spent 200 hours on,” she added. “Teacher retention, promoting education, careers, skills-based learning, learners-to-earners.”

“I’m trying to work on anti-violence in my community,” added board member Byrd. “There are such bigger things that we should be spending our time on.”

Community members during public comment also noted that, under the revised policies on instructional materials, there’s no real process for appealing books that have been removed from schools.

Under the revised policy, books can be challenged by a parent of a child in Orange County schools, a county resident, and/or a school board member.

“If we want to learn a book that is factually correct, maybe we should start teaching 1984 by George Orwell,” quipped one student, “Because that's where our state and nation is going.”

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As it is, challenged books “shall not be removed immediately” under the revised policy, unless it’s determined by the county superintendent or designee to contain “pornography,” obscenity (per Florida’s legal definition), or if there’s belief it could be “disruptive” to student learning.

A new bill (HB 1069) that’s expected to get DeSantis’ final approval in the coming days or weeks, however, bolsters that complaint process.

It requires that complaints made against books on the basis of them containing “pornography” (whether that’s true or not) be removed within five days of the complaint and “remain unavailable to students of that school until the objection is resolved.”

That’s why board members can expect to discuss further revisions to the district’s policies this summer.

Teresa Jacobs, Orange County school board chair, became tearful on Tuesday in her comments on the policy.

“When I see the books that are pulled, I can’t ignore the fact that there are still too many people right here — right here in Orange County, where I thought we were so much better — that are pulling these books,” said Jacobs, who served as Orange County mayor from 2011 until taking office as school board chair in 2018.

The fact that it’s largely LGBTQ-themed books that are being challenged, or pulled from shelves across the state, is particularly troubling to Jacobs.

“I know how important it is for you to be safe and welcome, and cherished and loved,” Jacobs said.

She added that, while books like Gender Queer have been removed from shelves, she’s also been working with the superintendent to make sure there are books in schools that are age-appropriate and representative of all children.

“We are going to hunt for those books that we can add into the library,” said Jacobs. “We are going to fight with positivity. We're going to fight with love, OK? And we are going to win.”

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About The Author

McKenna Schueler

News reporter for Orlando Weekly, covering general news, local government, labor, housing, and other social and economic justice issues. Previously worked as a news anchor for WMNF in Tampa and a freelance journalist with works published in In These Times, Strikewave, Creative Loafing Tampa Bay, and Facing South...
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