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How some Tampa Bay-area school districts are approaching book bans

New Florida laws that go into effect in July impact schools' vulnerability to lawsuits over controversial books.

TAMPA, Fla — In March, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed multiple bills into law impacting students, parents and school districts. 

The "Parental Rights in Education" bill has been dubbed by critics as the "Don't Say Gay" bill because it bars educators from teaching about sexual orientation or gender identity to students in kindergarten through third grade. School districts may opt to ban topics of sexual orientation or gender identity beyond third grade if leaders deem them not to be age or developmentally appropriate. 

The bill does not give schools the ability to “out” LGBTQ students who confide in staff about their sexual orientation or identity, but schools are required to notify parents about any change to their child's “mental, emotional, or physical health or well-being.” There are exceptions if there are concerns disclosing that information could result in abuse or neglect.

Another bill signed into law established term limits for school board members and gives parents more access and input into what books are allowed to sit on the shelves of school libraries and classrooms.

The law reads, in part, "each district school board must adopt a policy regarding an objection by a parent or a resident of the county to the use of a specific material, which clearly describes a process to handle all objections and provides for resolution."

This makes schools more vulnerable to lawsuits from parents, organizations, or other entities if the legislation is not appropriately followed. Now, school districts across the Sunshine State are combing through their literature to review content and determine what is and isn't appropriate based on age and grade level and how to implement a process that allows books to be challenged, reviewed and possibly removed. 

The legislation goes into effect in July 2022. 10 Tampa Bay reached out to school districts in our area to learn how they plan to adhere to the new legislation. 

Hardee County: "We will do what we're told by the governor and commissioner," Superintendent Bob Shaymon said. Shaymon said Hardee County Schools has had a book review process in place for a minimum of 15 years, and in that time, not a single book has been brought to the committee. 

Hillsborough County: The laws do not go into effect until July. We are awaiting further guidance from the Department of Education regarding the impacts of the legislation.  

Manatee County: The School District of Manatee County has not had any formal book challenges this school year, and therefore no specific books have been removed as a result of a formal challenge. For more information on Objections to the Adoption of Instructional Materials, please visit the following link to our school district website: https://www.manateeschools.net/Page/11341

Pasco County: The district will look to see which books are banned in other counties across the state and if they are on the shelves in Pasco County schools through their electronic database. "What I'm trying to do and what we as a district are trying to do is be a little bit more proactive before we're faced with a lot of book challenges," superintendent Kurt Browning said. Browning is working to set up an electronic opt-out form for parents to fill out if there are books they do not wish their child have access.

Pinellas County: Pinellas County Schools will continue to offer parents an opt-out option on a case-by-case basis at their child’s school. Parents and guardians can opt-out of student access to Library Media materials any time by contacting their school Library Media Technology Specialist. Families will continue to have access to the app Destiny Discover in Clever, the online library catalog students use to check out books, search the online catalog and put books on hold.  The app allows families to view a child’s current checkouts and book holds. Pinellas County Schools has a process for adopting instructional materials. https://www.pcsb.org/domain/8108 The district also has a process for reviewing controversial library and instructional materials using a School-Based Instructional Materials Review Committee. Policy 2510
This review committee appointed by the principal is composed of three (3) faculty members, two (2) parents chosen by the school advisory council, two (2) members representing the community, and the library information specialist, who shall serve as the non-voting chairman/facilitator. 

Polk County: PCPS is creating an opt-in/opt-out system that will allow parents to select which titles their children can access from school libraries. This system will be finalized during the summer and in place for the 2022-23 school year. Parents will be able to make their selections as part of the back-to-school preparations at the beginning of the 2022-23 school year.

Sarasota County: The district is in the midst of reviewing & working through all School Board policies – including School Board policy 4.30 (Challenged Materials) – to ensure existing policies comply with any newly passed legislation that pertains to school districts. Suggested changes to any policies would be presented at a School Board workshop in due time. We are unable to speculate about which item(s) the School Board would choose to revise – or choose to retain – about any given, existing policy.

Citrus and Hernando counties' school districts have not yet returned our request for information on library and instructional materials policy. 

10 Tampa Bay has reached out to the Florida Department of Education to learn if they will be providing school districts with guidance on how to best adhere to new laws impacting education. The DOE has not returned our requests for comment.   

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