The Hernando County School Board has been dealing with a topic of nationwide concern, which is what books are appropriate for public school libraries. Books have been found in public school libraries that depict graphic sexual content. Other books have been challenged because of their unbalanced coverage of racial issues.
On March 8th, Governor Ron DeSantis held a conference in Tampa on the “Book Ban Hoax.” During the meeting, he showed images of three books by Rupi Kaur: “The Sun and Her Flowers,” “Milk and Honey,” and “Home Body.” “The Sun and Her Flowers” was later found in Central High School’s library.
Community member and Hernando County Republican Party Committeewoman Mary Mazzuco came forward at the March 28th school board meeting to speak about inappropriate books still on school library shelves in relation to the consent agenda item recommending the removal of the book “Lucky” by Alice Sebold from circulation within the district.
Governor Ron DeSantis stated in March, “In Florida, pornographic and inappropriate materials that have been snuck into our classrooms and libraries to sexualize our students violate our state education standards. Florida is the education state, and that means providing students with a quality education free from sexualization and harmful materials that are not age appropriate.”
Mazzuco asked, “If the governor has instructed us to remove certain books from the schools, why is it that I have two books? One that came out of Central signed out; everything was done legally. The other one came out of Pine Grove Elementary School- books that are inappropriate. I believe there is a $5000 fine for the media specialist who would have allowed those books to be there. Ultimately you all have had to make sure that these books are removed, and apparently, you’re not doing that. I don’t understand why these books are still in the schools.”
She reiterated that both books were signed out legally. “I will be giving this directly to the governor,” Mazzuco said. “Somebody is responsible for those books still being in there.”
Superintendent Stratton said that there is no Governor’s list that he’s aware of.
“What it is- is a challenge process the governor has strengthened… There’s not a list of books the Governor or the Department of Education put out. Secondly, keep in mind – that’s Hernando County property- even if it goes off the shelf, it’s still Hernando County property.”
In 2022, the governor signed HB 1467 into law. According to the Governor’s Office, HB 1467 requires the school district to notice meetings where instructional materials will be selected and have them open to the public. School districts must provide access to the materials at least 20 days in advance of the school board taking any official action. Also, the DOE is required to publish a list of materials that have been removed by school boards through the objection process and distribute that list to school districts for consideration.
Additionally, under Florida Statute 847.012, the distribution of pornographic material to children is a third-degree felony, the maximum fine of which includes up to five years in prison, probation, and a $5000 fine.
Following the legislation signed into law in 2022, 23 school districts have reported the removal of inappropriate books from school shelves. According to the Governor’s Office, “Of the 175 books removed across the state, 164 (94%) were removed from media centers, and 153 (87%) were identified as pornographic, violent, or inappropriate for their grade level.”
The consent agenda item to approve the removal of “Lucky” was pulled by school board members Mark Johnson and Shannon Rodriguez. Johnson said he read the book and found it to be inappropriate. He pulled the item because he would like the public to know that they are addressing inappropriate books on school library shelves. “We will remove any book that is pornography or not appropriate for children,” he said.
Prescott remarked that there was a committee that recommended the removal of the book, and the committee was represented by internal staff and community members.
Rodriguez asked who was on the committee specifically.
Debbye Warrell, Lead District Media Specialist, stated that the committee was made up of six people, including herself, Jeff Carson, a district media specialist, the principal of the school where the book was located, several staff members, and a district official as well. She explained that each school forms its own advisory committee to address book challenges.
Johnson remarked that they were discussing the policy at the workshop earlier that day and came to an agreement that the committees should consist of a community member and a parent of a student in the school district, which he said will hopefully be brought to a future board meeting for a vote.
Shannon Rodgriguez remarked, “We’ve been on this for two years- pulling these books.”
Comments from Rodgriguez centered on an incident that occurred during the workshop earlier that day, which greatly upset her. Rodriguez began by admonishing school board member Susan Duval. She said that during the school board workshop, Duval requested the video footage of someone going to Central High School’s library. It was Shannon Rodriguez who proactively went to Central to pull two books that the computer system said were on the shelves. Both books were discussed by DeSantis at the March 8 meeting.
Rodriguez said, “Shame on you. I feel very sorry and upset for this community that this is the leadership that we have… I had just come back from a governor’s meeting in Tampa earlier that same week. He had three books. He had any children removed from the room, and he showed three books on the projector, and he discussed in great length the three books and how outrageous they are. We should know as a county by now that this isn’t okay… There should not be a book in the school district right now that’s raunchy. We’ve had ample time to get these books out. It’s not like it just happened two months ago- this has been going on forever.”
She said that during the school board campaigns last year, Monty Floyd identified and provided call numbers for these books. She stated that two out of the three books Gov DeSantis spoke about- the system showed to be at Central High School. She said she went to Central right after the press conference, and she found one of the two books that were in the system.
“I was able to get that book. Instead of being grateful that I’m doing my job– I don’t want to be convicted by you because I went to the school and did something for us- for the greater good of the children. If you’re really here for the kids and the kids matter to you – you should say today- I don’t care about getting video footage of Shannon in the library. Go with me- remove the books- because it’s not happening fast enough.”
“Why is it that you’re mad at me over that- why can’t you say thank you, Shannon?”
“We’re supposed to go above and beyond- we’re supposed to do due diligence to keep those kids safe. I have three kids in the school system. I don’t want them seeing this smut. So no, I won’t apologize that I went into a library and I pulled a book off of the governor’s list.”
“I’m on a board where we’re supposed to be collectively working together, and I was literally appalled at the workshop when I got called out by you over it. Instead of saying thank you.”
Duval explained, “I didn’t call you out. I didn’t say your name. I wanted to see if what I heard was true.”
“Why didn’t you ask me?” Rodriguez replied. “Because it’s sneaky. Everything is sneaky. Mr. Stratton pretended like he didn’t know what you were talking about… He knew all along. All of you have known,” Rodriguez added.
“Is it sneaky then to go into the library with the lights out and hide and pull a book?” Duval asked.
“No, it’s not sneaky to go into the library when you check yourself into the front office, tell them what you’re there for – to go to the media center- and you knock on the door, and the lady lets you in, and you tell her you’re looking to pull a book and she comes to the back and helps you pull. When you see the video, you’re going to see her helping me pull the book. So no – none of that is sneaky.”
“When I left the library, I also went to the front office and told them I was done and I was exiting the campus,” she added.
“Sneaky is you guys not pulling those books like you should and getting them off the library shelves for these children- that’s sneaky,” Rodriguez surmised.
Board Chairman Gus Guadagnino asked staff to let them know when the books were put on the library shelves.
Susan Duval stated that she would be voting to approve the removal of “Lucky” because there were facts in the book that were later found out not to be true.
While Duval did not elaborate, Alice Sebold wrote “Lucky” in 1999, and within it, she recounts her rape in 1981 and identifies the man she accused of the crime. The man spent 16 years behind bars for her rape until his conviction was overturned in 2021.
Duval commented, “You talk about parent rights- you’re forgetting everyone else in this whole scenario. It should not be just one person or one group who makes a decision on what everybody gets a chance to read. We are a country of free speech but apparently not of free writing. As a parent, if I don’t want my student reading something, I contact the media center, and the situation is taken care of. If I don’t want my child checking out any books from the library- fine, I notify the media center.”
“These graphic depictions of sexual acts is not appropriate to be in schools,” Rodriguez retorted.
Again Susan Duval reiterated the rights of parents to make the determination for their children.
While Duval was speaking, one community member spoke out and was removed from the meeting. Another got up and left, stating, “You’re full of s***.”
Linda Prescott said that if she had been at the governor’s meeting, she would have called Mr. Stratton to tell him that those books should not be in the library, and Mr. Stratton would have called Ms. Warrell, the media specialist, and something would have happened. Addressing Rodriguez, she said, “Obviously, we want books out of there that shouldn’t be there, but how we go about that is definitely a problem, and you feel like we’re in a conspiracy against you. I don’t know why you lumped us all in because you don’t know who knows what. It’s just really sad that I feel like you feel like you’re being picked on, and you’re not… In the state of Utah, a parent actually filed a complaint against the Bible because the Bible has all of the things that shouldn’t be in a book… Where do we draw the line?” She said that there are books she was required to read in high school and college being banned, so she questions what is happening.
Rodgriguez reiterated that the books being removed are pornographic.
Mark Johnson said that it is time to do what the community wants us to do. Not what we want to do. “That’s the change that’s going on in this state right now- keep the community in the loop and take their input.”
He described “Lucky” as the Bible on how to commit rape and was very graphic. “I don’t think that belongs in the schools either.”
Board members unanimously voted to approve the removal of “Lucky” by Alice Sebold.