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President of school librarian association says her profession is facing unprecedented pressure

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There have been more than 200 book bans across Florida in the past year, according to a report by the advocacy group PEN America. Many of the targeted books are centered around people of color and LGBTQ characters at a time when state lawmakers are restricting how race, discrimination and diversity can be discussed in Florida classrooms. Advocates worry there will be even more book challenges under a new state law that goes into effect in July.

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Michelle Jarrett, president of the Florida Association for Media in Education, says the state’s school librarians and media specialists are facing an unprecedented level of scrutiny. Jarrett spoke with WLRN education reporter Kate Payne.

The following is an excerpt of their conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity.

JARRETT: This is my 27th year teaching and my 22nd year in Florida. I’ve never seen teachers or school library media specialists vilified in such a way. We have seen book challenges and major conversations at school board meetings in Flagler, Brevard, Orange, Osceola, Hillsborough, Indian River [and] Broward. But it’s really kind of been a variety of titles. All Boys Aren’t Blue has been one that’s been discussed a lot. Gender Queer has been discussed a lot.

WLRN: Both of these books are coming-of-age memoirs told from a queer perspective, and they're meant for high school students, according to reviews published in industry journals. All Boys Aren’t Blue describes sexual assault and having sex for the first time. Gender Queer: A Memoir touches on gynecological exams and vibrators. 

In Flagler and Indian River County, a school board member and the Moms for Liberty Chapter filed police reports over All Boys Aren’t Blue.

These groups of… political groups believe that these titles are… have pornography in them. And therefore, by checking them out to minors, it is then a felony because you have then given a child porn.

I’ve never seen anything like it. I think the ultimate goal for every teacher and media specialist is really that they’re encouraging children to read.

This new state law, House Bill 1467, Governor Ron DeSantis has said it will give more parents a say in what books can and can’t be in their kids’ schools and will require meetings where instructional materials are being reviewed to be open to the public. Any objections that are filed by parents or residents will have to be reported to the state. What are your concerns?

So on the plus side, it shows the importance of having a school library media specialist in every school— who reads, who knows the literature that is out there and understands age-appropriate literature and what should be in a school library.

The law requires certified media specialists to be the ones picking out library books – even though not all schools have one on staff. 

The part that we’re struggling with is the thought process of creating a repository of books that have been banned or sort of a list. Because we don’t want other districts or other schools to then look at that list and say, oh, we should ban that as well.

What is the importance, especially now, for kids to have access to books, even and even especially if they’re challenging?

Having open conversations with kids about hard topics creates more resilient children. When you walk into a library, you have anywhere from 10 to 20,000 options of something that you can choose. The challenges and the people who are making the challenges want to remove those options from kids who need them. And they often, very often, are books about people of color or books with LGBTQ characters, or books about hard topics, whether it’s suicide, drug abuse, sexual or domestic abuse, topics that are hard to talk about.

But we have those books because we want kids to A: see themselves in books if these things are happening to them. Or B: provide a window for people who don’t have those experiences to see what happens to other people in the world. That’s how we create compassionate and empathetic people.

You as a parent can certainly say, to my children, I don’t think that you’re ready to read that, or this is something I think maybe you need to read later on, or that’s not something we believe in in our family. But no parent has the right to remove something from another child’s or another family’s reading list. That’s where the parental rights come in, is that every family has the right to choose what’s right for their family. And that’s why we can’t take those books away from them.

If you’re a South Florida educator and you’re dealing with book challenges or restrictions, reach out to us on social media @WLRN.

Kate Payne is WLRN's Education Reporter. Reach her at kpayne@wlrnnews.org
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