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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.”

 

Bruce Harris, another speaker during the workshop, suggested the department needs to clarify the language. He noted that a principal might view a book as inappropriate even if the state does not, and asked whether that principal would be found to have violated the rule.

Kosec said it was a good point worthy of future consideration. He later added that, if the department receives a complaint about a principal’s action on books, his office would conduct a full investigation into how the decision followed district policy and state law.

Damaris Allen of Tampa-based Families for Strong Public Schools, who also attended the workshop, said she hoped the state will seriously consider requests for more clarity in what is considered inappropriate material, rather than keep its focus on punishing educators.

“I would hate to see a whole generation of kids robbed of the love of reading at a time when we’re struggling with literacy rates because of vague and punitive rules,” Allen said.

Kosec said the department would continue to accept public input on the proposal as it moves toward an April consideration by the State Board of Education.

Meanwhile, lawmakers have taken a step toward dealing with excessive book challenges from the general public.

The Florida House has proposed a provision to assess $100 processing fees for each challenge filed by a parent or resident who does not have a student in the affected school, after that person has had five unsuccessful challenges. That item is in a larger bill (HB 1285) that awaits Senate action.

The House also had included in its education deregulation bill (SB 7004) a proposal to limit non-parent objectors to one challenge per month. That line was deleted from consideration before the bill passed, though.


©2024 Tampa Bay Times. Visit at tampabay.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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