OCPS and the censoring of middle and high-school libraries

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By
Stephana Ferrell

Guest Commentary

Thursday, January 13, 2022

OCPS and the censoring of middle and high-school libraries

Andrew Gatt

The underground library of ghostly empty shelves, able to hold 20,000 books, a memorial designed by Israeli artist Micha Ullman to mark the spot on Berlin's Bebelplaz, where members of the Nazi German Student Union and their professors burned books on May 10, 1933, "against decadence and moral decay" and "the un-German spirit."

Apparently Gender Queer: A Memoir is a dangerous book. So dangerous, in fact, four copies of Maia Kobabe’s graphic novel were removed from the shelves of three high school libraries without going through Orange County Public Schools’ (OCPS) own formal challenge and review process.


That’s the essential message OCPS Superintendent Barbara Jenkins delivered at the Dec. 14 school board meeting as she attempted to justify that Gender Queerprobably could be disruptive to the educational setting,” after the “public spectacle” that occurred at the Oct. 26 public comment session (italics mine). Jenkins and Maria Vazquez, the deputy superintendent, preemptively removed the book, contributing to its now-national reputation as one of the most challenged books of 2021.


John Palmerini, OCPS deputy general counsel, has since double-downed on this reasoning, arguing that because the book wasn’t formally challenged at the school level, principals aren’t obligated to keep copies in their libraries pending a review. Palmerini also pointed to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that enables OCPS to limit speech that could cause a “substantial disruption” to the classroom. Nevermind that Gender Queer has been on school library shelves for well over a year without incident.

This was undoubtedly the best defense the OCPS legal team could muster after being called out by the National Coalition Against Censorship in a Nov. 17 open letter to the school board that warned that “exempting Gender Queer from the standard procedures, the district raises the suspicion that the removal of the book was motivated by hostility to the book’s position on gender nonconformity.”


Same Censorship, Different Decade

Censorship of school library shelves is not new. The courts have ruled multiple times over the past 70 years against hasty removal of challenging materials, specifically addressing the “improper motivations” behind school boards that didn’t follow their established challenge processes.


In Case v. Unified School District Number 233, for instance, the Kansas District Court noted the irregular manner in which the 1982 novel Annie On My Mind by Nancy Gordon was taken from school libraries and the Unified School District leaders’ disregard for established policy as evidence of censorship. Those pulling controversial books off school library shelves often point out the books are available in public libraries. But the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals didn’t accept that reasoning, ruling in Minarcini v. Strongsville City School District that the availability of a book through another outlet doesn’t justify the improper removal of a book from the school library.


OCPS school board members reiterated that, going forward, all book challenges must follow the established, documented process. But, by letting the superintendent remove a controversial book because a provocateur sought a viral moment by reading a select passage out of context, the school board undermined the formal challenge process and invited more “public spectacles” as more library books are found to be controversial.


This debacle has already discouraged librarians from keeping controversial books on their shelves. One OCPS librarian I spoke to nervously said she wasn’t allowed to answer questions about books being withheld from students. Another said she could confirm there wasn’t an active challenge to any books at her school, nor had any books been removed from the shelves, but she couldn’t speak about the availability of ebooks through the district.


Indeed, a check of the OCPS online catalog (available through the Follett app on the OCPS Dashboard) found that other books making headlines like Jonathtan Evison’s Lawn Boy and All Boys Aren’t Blue: A Memoir Manifesto by George M. Johnson and Born a Crime by The Daily Show’s Trevor Noah are no longer available as ebooks, and many of the book copies are marked “lost” or are past due by months.


No Books For You

This is akin to shadow banning or stealth banning for books. Schools can point to their rosters and the books are there on the lists. You can see them. They’re just not available for students to check out — ever.


I talked to the mom of a sixth grader from Timber Springs Middle School who went online to hold a copy Being Jazz: My Life As a Transgender Teen by Jazz Jennings for checkout. She’d gotten the message, “We have received your request for the next available copy of this title. Unfortunately, the library does not currently own any copies. We will notify you when we obtain one.” According to the OCPS catalog, 12 of 15 district copies were available. After the student’s mom sent an email, the librarian “magically” produced one.


Then I asked a junior at Dr. Phillips High School to scope out the situation at that library. He tried to check out All Boys Aren’t Blue and Born a Crime and was told by the librarian that no copies of All Boys Aren’t Blue were available even though, according to the OCPS catalog, three bound copies were available the day he asked to check out the book. He was able to go home with Born a Crime.


Just because we’re not witnessing book bonfires doesn’t make this shadow banning of books any less alarming. Of course, parents have the right to screen what their own children read. But it stops there. They have no right to prevent others from reading those books or telling other parents what their kids can read.


But that may not be the case for long. Right now in the state legislature, the Materials Harmful to Minors bill (HB 1305), is making its way through House committees. It would require school districts to “proactively remove specified materials,” deemed “inappropriate or unsuitable” and allow parents as well as anyone else living in the county to object to school materials.


The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that all children have the right to read books regardless of their point of view. That’s a guarantee of the First Amendment. Now, as censorship flares up in our schools, it’s our obligation to safeguard that freedom for all the students in our community.


Stephana Ferrell, who has two children in the OCPS system, is a founding member of Florida Freedom To Read Project, which unites parents from around the state to advocate for students’ constitutional rights to access information on the shelves that are most accessible to them. Ferrell last wrote about OCPS' book banning for VoxPopuli in November



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