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Florida school principals could be penalized under proposed book rule

Jeffrey S. Solochek, Tampa Bay Times on

Published in News & Features

TAMPA, Fla. — Florida school principals could face state penalties if they are determined to have illegally prevented students from looking at library books in their schools, under a new rule under consideration by the state Department of Education.

Randy Kosec, chief of the department’s Office of Professional Practices, introduced the proposed rule on Friday during a lightly attended 20-minute online workshop. It reads that “a school principal shall not prevent, direct anyone to prevent, or allow anyone to prevent students from accessing educational materials without legal cause to do so.”

The activity came two weeks after Gov. Ron DeSantis called for reforms to the book challenge process, which he said had been abused by “bad actors.”

Florida has received national attention for a surge in the number of books that schools have pulled from their shelves. The state led all others in that category last year, according to PEN America.

DeSantis supported several pieces of legislation that made the challenge process easier. He touted the efforts to remove books with sexual content as a way to protect children and preserve parental rights.

Yet the governor blamed activists who challenge too many books, and educators who remove access to entire sections of libraries, for hijacking the process to make political points. He called on the department to write rules for educators who take such steps, and encouraged lawmakers to amend state law to deal with the outside objectors.

 

Friday’s workshop represented the department’s first step toward following the governor’s directive.

During the session, participants raised questions about what the terms in the proposed rule mean. They targeted the phrases “educational materials” and “legal cause.”

Carlos Guillermo Smith, senior policy advisor for the LGBTQ+ advocacy group Equality Florida, contended the rule appears as vague as the laws that schools are attempting to follow when they remove books from shelves. Those include measures that place limits on the instruction of sexual identity and gender orientation, along with prohibitions on books that depict pornography or sexual conduct.

“The law is vague and the law is punitive. It has led to a toxic environment in our schools where educators are afraid of being prosecuted by the state if they don’t remove the books,” said Smith, a former state representative from Orlando who is seeking election to the Senate. “I don’t think the solution to a vague and punitive law is to double down on penalties.”

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