A 2023 Dystopian Novel by Florida Government
Words By Carmen Macri
Some Duval County students returned from winter break to an empty class library. Why? Because good ol’ Ron DeSantis and Duval County Public Schools (DCPS) deemed over 176 books “too inappropriate” to be in K-12 classrooms. And right in time for literacy week! The DCPS and Ronnie boy claim that while these books have all been confiscated out of classrooms or are covered so as to hide the title and images, they are not banned: They are strictly “under review,” though, not a single teacher in Duval County knows when—or if—these books will return to their classrooms.
The “book ban” is due to the school district ordering books from Essential Voices Classroom Libraries in 2021, a collection of titles that, according to distributors, is designed to make classrooms more diverse and inclusive. But the DCPS claims the list includes many titles that must be reviewed. This is in response to Florida House Bill 1467 which requires each book made available to students in the school library or through an assigned reading list must be selected by a school district employee who holds a “valid educational media specialist certificate.” Following the bill’s passing, all classroom libraries were required to be emptied so an “approved media specialist” could review each and every book for appropriateness unless the books already appear on the state-approved reading list. Even worse, the bill went into effect July 1, 2022 with 176 books going under review in January, and so far, not a single book has been returned to the shelves.
Critics of the bill feel as if the “book ban” is targeted at the LGBTQ+ community and censors diversity since a majority of the books under review feature characters that represent a variety of ethnicities, religions and gender identities.
The bill creates liability for teachers who (knowingly or unknowingly) provide access to books considered “harmful” to minors. According to a Florida Department of Education training document, materials that are “harmful to minors” are any books with depictions that “predominantly appeal to a prurient, shameful, or morbid interest” and that are “patently offensive without serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value for minors.” Interestingly, the list includes the Berenstain Bears series (morbid interest, maybe?).
“If we do not comply, we could be charged with a felony,” said a heartbroken elementary school teacher in Duval County, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of speaking out (even more so after Brian Cover, a full-time substitute teacher for DCPS, was fired for posting a video of empty bookshelves on social media). For her protection, we’ll call her Jane Doe.
Doe’s initial reaction to the news was disbelief, saying it felt like an infringement of the First Amendment. Confused and devastated, she tried to remain as transparent as possible with her students, explaining the State of Florida wants to ensure the books they have access to in schools are “appropriate” for the classroom. But being fifth graders, they threw more questions at her than a basketball gets thrown at recess.
“I encouraged them to tell their parents about the book ban because they [parents] are probably wondering why their kids are no longer taking books home. It’s baffling to me that this ban is being disguised as ‘giving more power to parents,’” Doe explained. “For a group of people who share the same values, attitudes and expectations as the individuals in charge, yes, this is empowering. But taking away books that represent students’ race, culture and religion now tells them [the students] that they are not as important in society. If children do not perceive themselves as represented in the books they read, they may begin to feel unimportant and forgotten about.”
The book removal is just the next chapter in DeSantis’s campaign to control public school education by banning certain history lessons, discussions and now, books. (Not to mention, the fact he is currently asking for a complete breakdown of medical data from students who received gender-affirming care at public universities, but that’s a different story.)
Doe explained that teaching students how to read is one thing, but teaching them to love reading is another. Children need to be exposed to a variety of topics and genres to enrich their growing minds. “If you can teach a child to see the value in reading,” she said, “then you have given them the power to learn anything.”
Doe provided independent reading time in the classroom for her students, and for most, it was their favorite part of the day. She offered this because some students don’t have the privilege of owning books of their own. Part of her job is to support lower-income students and families by providing them with the materials they need to be successful.
“I have a student who is living in a hotel with many other siblings. I won’t go into detail about the other obstacles in his life, but he loves to read,” Doe explained. “It can be a great way for a child to escape their reality.”
The student was able to take home his favorite book, “The Adventures of Midnight Son.” The next day, he came into the classroom excited to tell his teacher he had finished the book.
“I know this might not seem like a big deal, but for a teacher, it is. It breaks my heart that I cannot share this with him anymore. It is not fair to take away access to free books from children who do not have the privilege of getting their own.”
As a teacher, it is extremely discouraging to be told the government does not trust you to judge what is or isn’t appropriate for students. Why would teachers want to work in a profession that undermines their expertise and takes away autonomy? They have been accused of indoctrinating their students by our governor. (So hypocritical.)
Doe voiced that teaching topics like racism, discrimination and violence against minorities, is just teaching history. Censoring conversations around those subjects will only perpetuate those issues further. “Protecting” children by withholding information to make them more comfortable is a dangerous viewpoint.
“These kinds of topics also give students the ability to discuss and think critically,” Doe explained. “We should feel anger and sadness when learning about certain topics in history.”
Months have gone by and all teachers are left with is the unreliable information being fed to them by the DCPS and DeSantis. Claims have been made that the process has been slowed down due to understaffing. (Maybe stop firing teachers for speaking out?) Also, a “media specialist” is now the only person who can check out books to students, even more concerning since Doe claims many Duval County schools don’t even have a media specialist.
Clearly, DeSantis read “Fahrenheit 451” by Ray Bradbury, but who wants to tell him it was fiction and not “How to Govern for Dummies.”