(CNN) — Efforts are underway in Florida counties to comply with a law championed by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis that requires the approval of books in classroom libraries.
Manatee County School District teachers are experiencing “fear” and “confusion” as the district works to implement HB 1467, which requires that books be pre-approved materials or vetted by a media specialist trained by Florida’s Department of Education, according to Pat Barber, president of the Manatee Education Association, the county’s teachers’ union.
A document provided by the district that lays out new statutory changes to HB 1467 indicates violations could be considered a third-degree felony.
“It’s unconscionable to me that teachers would be put in a position that their good deed of providing classroom libraries for their students in order to instill the love of reading could possibly result in a felony,” Barber told CNN.
The books provision, which took effect in July after being signed by DeSantis last year, requires library media resources be approved by a “school district employee who holds a valid educational media specialist certificate,” according to a June memo. According to Florida’s Department of Education, which was putting out guidance memos as recently as December, selection of library materials — including classroom libraries — must be “free of Pornography” and prohibited material under the law, “suited to student needs and their ability to comprehend the material presented,” and “appropriate for the grade level and age group.”
“A teacher (or any adult) faces a felony if they knowingly distribute egregious material, such as images which depict sexual conduct, sexual battery, bestiality, or sadomasochistic abuse. Who could be against that?” Florida Education Commissioner Manny Diaz Jr. tweeted Wednesday in defense of the measure.
The contentious law marks just one of several efforts backed by DeSantis to legislate what can be taught in Florida schools — a public stance that has boosted his national prominence as he is said to be weighing a potential 2024 presidential bid. Just this week, the governor commented for the first time on the state’s rejection of a new proposed AP course on African American studies for imposing what he called a “political agenda.”
CNN has reached out to DeSantis’ office for comment.
Marie Masferrer with the Florida Association for Media in Education asked school board members during a Tuesday meeting to give students access to books in classrooms while materials are being cataloged and vetted. “Open up the classroom libraries while the process can be done,” she said.
Don Falls, who teaches government and economics at Manatee High School, told CNN that teachers were told they could box up their personal classroom libraries, cover them up or enter the books into the district’s cataloging system in order to check their approval and keep them on shelves. He has opted to cover his books up with chart paper.
“I think it’s a stronger statement to cover them up. My students have asked me what’s going on, and while I did not go into a lot of details, I let them know about the restrictions that have been placed on the books that have come from the district by way of the state,” said Falls, who is in his 38th year of teaching in the district.
He added: “I don’t have the time or feel like I should have to go through all these books and put them in the system. It’s fundamentally wrong to me and my students’ First Amendment Rights.”
On Tuesday, Laurie Breslin, the Manatee County School District’s executive director of curriculum, said that some teachers may have decided to block access to books because they lack the time to catalog their classroom libraries and verify if the titles are pre-approved. But Breslin indicated teachers are allowed to give students pre-approved reading materials, and students have access to books in the school’s main library.
“This is us protecting the teachers, not saying we’re banning books,” School Board Chair Chad Choate III said.
While battles over access to controversial books have traditionally been fought district by district, and even school by school, Republican-controlled states including Florida, Georgia, Tennessee and Texas have pushed statewide rules that make it easier for critics to remove titles they dislike from school libraries in every community.
In Manatee County, the school district confirmed to CNN that it is in the process of “cataloging” books in classrooms to make sure it is in compliance with the law.
Kevin Chapman, Manatee County School District’s chief of staff, said volunteers are working with teachers to compile a list of books in classrooms and checking to see if books are in a database of vetted materials. If the book is not an approved book, it must be vetted by a trained media specialist, he said.
The district met with principals last week to brief them on how the district planned to implement the new law, according to Chapman. He said he was not aware of any books that have been pulled since last week’s meeting but said there have been books pulled since the beginning of the school year because they were deemed inappropriate.
“We know this is going to be a process and we want them to be accurate,” he said. “It is a big undertaking.”
Asked to respond to critics who say the process is censorship, Chapman said, “The School District of Manatee is just abiding by the law.”
At another school board meeting in Pinellas County, Florida, Tuesday night, school officials confirmed they were also working to align their policies with the state requirements. A group of library media specialists reviewed 94 book titles over the summer “for age appropriateness,” said Dan Evans, associate superintendent of teaching and learning services.
“That team did recommend 10 titles to be weeded out of our collections or moved to our adult-only resource library,” Evans said, adding that the process was something the school district instituted and goes “beyond what the state requires.”
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