‘I’ve never seen anything like it’: Florida teachers strip classroom shelves of books in response to DeSantis ban

As Florida celebrates Literacy Week, one teacher tells Richard Hall how she was ordered to remove all non-sanctioned books from her shelves to abide by a law introduced by Governor Ron DeSantis

Thursday 26 January 2023 21:42 GMT
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<p>A Florida classroom shelf emptied of its books following new guidelines issued by Duval County Public Schools. </p>

A Florida classroom shelf emptied of its books following new guidelines issued by Duval County Public Schools.

Andrea Phillips, a Florida teacher for more than a decade, started her day on Wednesday with an act that went against every instinct she has as an educator. Following orders issued by her school district, she removed dozens of non-curriculum books from her classroom, stripping the shelves bare.

The new guidelines, issued by Duval County Public Schools earlier that day, require teachers to remove all books that do not appear on the state-approved reading list pending a “review” by a “media specialist.”

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Mrs Phillips, who teaches third grade in the county, told The Independent by phone. “It feels cold without all my books. It doesn’t feel like the classroom and the environment that I built.”

The book removals are the latest chapter in a campaign by Ron DeSantis, the Republican governor of Florida, to control public school education through his office by the banning of books, lessons and speech he deems to be objectionable.

The new guidelines are being issued now as school districts rush to comply with a controversial Florida law, passed by Mr DeSantis in March last year, that punishes teachers with felony charges if non-sanctioned books are present in classrooms.

That “curriculum transparency” law requires school book selections “to be free of pornography and prohibited materials harmful to minors,” and mandates the “regular removal or discontinuance” of books that do not meet state guidelines.

But critics have argued that the law, coupled with similar actions taken by Mr DeSantis, targets the LGBTQ community, prohibits discussion about Black history and diversity, and is fuelled by Right-wing activists with an anti-LGBTQ agenda.

Mr DeSantis, who is expected to run for president in 2024, has frequently used the governor’s office as a bully pulpit to stoke national culture war issues in aid of that effort.

In 2021, before the book banning act, Mr DeSantis also passed the “Parental Rights in Education” law, dubbed the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ law by critics, which prohibits “classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity in certain grade levels” in Florida’s primary schools, according to the preamble. That was followed by the ‘Stop WOKE’ law, which restricts how colleges and universities teach classes on race and gender.

PEN America has described the measures collectively as part of a “concerted campaign” taking place across the country “to ban books and instructional materials containing ‘objectionable’ content. Often, that content amounts to little more than an acknowledgment of LGBTQ+ identities or the existence of racism or sexism.”

Jonathan Friedman, director of free expression and education programmes at PEN America, told The Independent that Florida schools “appear to increasingly be operating under a cloud of fear.”

“School book bans continue to rise across the state, and their character is also changing. A year ago school administrators and boards were acting at the behest of local parents, citizens, or advisory groups. Now, many are removing or restricting books out of fear of new laws that might result in teachers losing their professional licences, or being charged with criminal felonies,” he said.

“All of this — vague laws, harsh penalties, confusing directives — is contributing to a situation where students’ opportunities to learn, grow, or experience the joy of independent reading are being diminished. The freedom to read and learn should anchor schools in a democracy. In Florida that freedom is clearly in jeopardy,” Mr Friedman added.

In Duval County, where Mrs Philips teaches, a total of 176 books have been banned from a collection that “features characters representing a variety of ethnicities, religious affiliations, and gender identities” in response to the curriculum transparency law.

Republican Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speaks at the Republican Jewish Coalition Annual Leadership Meeting in Las Vegas, Nevada, on November 19, 2022

Similar guidelines were issued to teachers in at least one other Florida district, causing teachers there to lock away their books, according to Popular Information. That school system also warned its educators that they could face felony charges if they fall foul of the law.

Since it was passed, the law has sown confusion in schools across the state. Seeking to clarify the new rules, Duval County School District sent a memo to teachers on Wednesday instructing them to “temporarily store books until they are reviewed.” The memo also notified teachers that “plays and poems” performed in class “will also need to be aligned to state statute language.”

Mrs Phillips, like many other teachers across the county, stripped her classroom shelves bare in response.

“It’s scary and it’s sad to me,” she said. “If I make a mistake and made a book available to a student and somebody objected to it, I could lose my teaching licence, I could lose my right to vote, I will be registered as a felon. It’s absolutely ridiculous.”

Mrs Philips noted the irony that she was forced to remove the books from her classroom during Literacy Week in Florida, a state-sponsored programme “designed to raise awareness about the importance of reading.”

“The autonomy that has been stolen from me. I’m a certified teacher, I’ve been doing this for more than a decade. I’ve done training after training. I’ve worked with kids for years. I know what I’m doing,” she said. “It’s just a punch in the gut. I don’t even really have the words for it because it’s so heartbreaking and heart-wrenching.”

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Mrs Philips has now removed all the books not on the core curriculum from her classroom pending an audit, but it is unclear how long that will take. Under the new measures issued by the district, all books placed in classrooms must be reviewed by a “certified media specialist” to ensure they comply with state guidelines.

“We don’t have enough media specialists to even vet these books,” she said. “Also, they don’t even have a system in place right now to vet the books. So yeah, it may be a temporary situation, but it feels like temporary is going to drag on forever.”

In the meantime, she added, the intervention by the governor’s office in the classroom has made her question whether she wants to continue.

“I don’t have a lot of things in life that I say I’m good at that. But I know that I’m a great teacher. It’s my passion, and I love it, and I feel like it’s been ripped out of my soul. I really feel like it’s just a part of me is dying,” she said.

Both Duval County Public Schools and Governor DeSantis’s office did not respond to The Independent’s requests for comment.

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