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Palm Beach County school district tells teachers to review classroom library books for references to racism, sexism and oppression

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On the last day of school in Palm Beach County, teachers received a memo saying they had to review all the books in their classroom libraries for references to racism, sexism and oppression. It’s part of the district’s effort to comply with new state laws. Some educators worry this new guidance undermines state laws that have been on the books for years, ensuring students learn about some of the darkest parts of history.

It’s Brian Knowles’ job to help educators in Palm Beach County teach about African American history and the Holocaust.

“We look at our past to make sure that we don't repeat those mistakes,” Knowles said. “The purpose that we teach the Holocaust is not to vilify or demonize Germans, for example, right? It's to look at the signs that happen when bigotry and racism goes unchecked within society.”

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State law requires public schools to teach about the Holocaust and African American history — plus the contributions that women and Hispanic people have made.

Brian Knowles’ team at the SDPBC Office of African, African American, Latino, Holocaust, and Gender Studies helps carry that out, developing lesson plans, training teachers and recommending books for their classroom libraries.

But now, new state laws restrict what can be taught in schools about gender identity, sexual orientation, race and discrimination.

Knowles says the measures undermine long-standing policies about what public school kids have to learn.

“I literally just met with a teacher. She is new to teaching African American history at one of our schools,” Knowles said. “That was like one of her pressing questions: how do I avoid potential lawsuits? How do I maintain my job and teach this course?”

In response to House Bill 1557, House Bill 7 and House 1467, Palm Beach County schools are telling teachers to review all the books in their classroom libraries.

District staff sent out a list of questions teachers have to answer, like — does a book encourage students to believe that people are racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously?

“That one question right there, kind of … I’ll say it jeopardizes everything that we do,” Knowles said.

The policy does not apply to textbooks or books in schoolwide libraries. Still, Knowles says even sharing the stories of Black heroes could be problematic under this guidance. He gives the example of Jackie Robinson.

“He was the first Black baseball player [in Major League Baseball]. Why? How come?” Knowles said.

If teachers answer “yes” or “unsure” to any of the questions in the district’s guidance, the book is to be removed from the classroom for further review.

A Palm Beach County school district spokesperson did not answer questions about who will conduct the review and what it will entail. Other South Florida districts say they're waiting for more guidance from the state Department of Education.

As for why Palm Beach County is moving forward now, School Board Member Erica Whitfield says the district is worried about potential lawsuits.

“One of the biggest concerns through this process is understanding how best that we can follow the law, not end up being sued, hopefully,” she said. “That's the goal we always have, is to be fiscally responsible.”

Alexandria Ayala was the first Latina elected to the district’s school board. She called the questionnaire “disturbing.”

“I think it's an incredibly unfair expectation and position to put our educators in to be policing content that may be helpful to their diverse array of students,” Ayala said.

The guidance has some teachers questioning how they can do their jobs.

“I just can't … I can't lie. I cannot lie to the students. I will tell them exactly what happened,” said a history teacher at Seminole Ridge Community High School. WLRN is not using her name because she’s afraid of retaliation from her school administration.

“Modern history, every aspect of it involves one group hurting another group and to try to pretend like that didn't happen … I cannot morally teach history,” she said.

Much of the questionnaire is drawn from House Bill 7, which restricts how schools and employers can address race and discrimination. During floor debate, Republican Rep. Randy Fine of Brevard County argued the bill was needed to prevent teachers from making students feel guilty about historical wrongs done by others.

“What it says is that you should not be told how to feel. You should not be told it is your fault,” Fine said. “Because history … we’re responsible for our own actions. Not the actions of those who came before us.”

Aurora Dominguez says her classroom library is meant to help her students at Boca Raton Community High School find a love of reading — and see themselves reflected in literature. She says it’s helped with their mental health too.

“I will tell the students, you know, if you need a moment, just go to that little corner library where I have my little beanbags, pick a book, and just relax,” she said. “So not only is that small classroom library a passion project, it's also considered a safe space in my classroom.”

Dominguez makes a point of offering books that feature people of color and LGBTQ characters in her classroom library. Now she’s worried those could be pulled off her shelves.

Kate Payne is WLRN's education reporter