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State considers greater scrutiny of school library books, warns staff that 'violations' could be crimes

In School Learning
Mary Altaffer
/
AP
First graders work at the Post Road Elementary School library, Thursday, Oct. 1, 2020, in White Plains, N.Y.

School librarians risk committing a crime if they loan out materials that are considered “harmful to minors”, the Florida Department of Education has warned.

The state Board of Education will meet Wednesday to discuss and vote on new proposed standards aimed at increasing scrutiny of library books — and the new guidance for district staff is to “err on the side of caution” when selecting books for school libraries.

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The training for librarians is part of the Department of Education’s implementation of a new state law that requires certified media specialists to choose school library materials, including for classroom libraries, which are often passion projects for teachers who curate their own collections.

Previously, other district staff could choose school library books, at a time when many schools have cut their media specialists positions to save money. School media specialists meanwhile have specialized training and advanced education in the development, management and organization of library collections.

Among the directives up for the state board's approval is that media specialists avoid books that contain “unsolicited theories that may lead to student indoctrination.”

“It is good practice to assess whether or not you as an adult making book selection decisions would be comfortable reading aloud the material in question in a public meeting,” a narrator said in a state-issued training video.

“If you would not be comfortable reading the material in a public setting, then you should lean towards not making the material available in a public school library for children,” the narrator adds.

In the training video, librarians are warned multiple times that if the books they choose are deemed to contain “any description or representation of nudity, sexual conduct or sexual excitement” in violation of state law, that could be a felony.

“Please remember, a violation of the harmful to minors statute is a crime,” the training video narrator said.

According to the state guidance, among the criteria needed for a book to be considered “harmful” is that “taken as a whole the material is without serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value for minors”.

Under the proposed standards, districts also have to report which materials parents or residents have objected to that year. Media specialists are directed to review the list of books that have been removed or flagged, and "carefully consider them before purchasing."

The state board will take public comment on the proposal at a meeting Wednesday beginning at 9 am.

It comes as school districts across Florida are already under increased pressure from state lawmakers and conservative activists following the passage of a state law restricting classroom instruction on gender identity and sexual orientation if it’s not considered “age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate."

In districts across the state, books featuring LGBTQ characters or issues related to the queer experience have been flagged or even pulled off shelves, after activists claimed the titles are inappropriate or obscene.

In Sarasota County, the school district blocked hundreds of dictionaries donated by a local Rotary Club from reaching students due to concerns about the increased scrutiny of library books and instructional materials, according to the Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

Kate Payne is WLRN's education reporter