They Came For The School Library. Now They’re At The Public Library in Escambia County, Florida

Kelly is a former librarian and a long-time blogger at STACKED. She’s the editor/author of (DON’T) CALL ME CRAZY: 33 VOICES START THE CONVERSATION ABOUT MENTAL HEALTH and the editor/author of HERE WE ARE: FEMINISM FOR THE REAL WORLD. Her next book, BODY TALK, will publish in Fall 2020. Follow her on Instagram @heykellyjensen.

Escambia County, Florida, has been one of the most prolific counties for book bans in schools. Earlier this year, it was revealed the district removed 1,600 titles from shelves, including everything from children’s Bibles to dictionaries to the Guinness Book of World Records. The district is embroiled in not one, but two, lawsuits over the rights of students to access books in their schools.

One of the biggest book ban advocates in Escambia County is teacher Vicki Baggett She submitted a list of hundreds of books she deemed inappropriate in the district because of graphic language, themes, and sexual content. The majority of those books are by or about members of the LGBTQ+ community.

Baggett was also behind a scheme that accused public school librarians of engaging in felony behavior. Baggett and Moms for Liberty member Tom Gurski took a copy of Storm and Fury to the Santa Rosa County Sheriff’s Office, alleging that the librarian was distributing pornography. When asked how they got their hands on the book, it came out that Baggett had one of her students borrow the book. Judd Legum’s reporting at Popular Information offers how dark and manipulative this story was.

Now, Baggett has turned her attention to the Escambia County Public Library.

Baggett claims several local parents approached her about inappropriate books in the kid’s section of the public library. Among the titles are perennially popular targets from Moms For Liberty, including It’s Perfectly Normal, a developmentally-appropriate puberty and sexual education book for tweens and teens. The other book cited as inappropriate was You Know, Sex, a book written for those ages 10-12.

As is her approach, Baggett immediately called the county commissioners over the children’s books and the library director. Her explanation was that those books were in a section labeled for readers 7-12, meaning that the two books, published for those age 9-12, were in the wrong spot.

Per WEAR, the books were relocated from the juvenile section and placed in the adult collection. A county spokesperson said the decision came because it was determined the books were not appropriate for the juvenile section. This is, of course, despite the fact both of those books were shelved in their exact appropriate place.

Once again it bears repeating: not only is this serial book banner continuing her efforts beyond the scope of what she and fellow censors claim is “just at the schools” into the public library. This is not the first nor the last time this will happen as we continue to weather the unrelenting attacks on the First Amendment rights of all. Furthermore, this story begs a lot of questions: who made the decision to label those juvenile books as inappropriate for juveniles in the public library? Why are those who made this decision bowing to pressure from a single individual with a very long track record not only of book banning but of deception and inappropriate behavior toward young people herself? The public library not paying attention to what’s happening at the school library is deeply concerning here, especially because nothing of Escambia County Schools has been quiet or hidden. They were the first district sued over their banning.

If it wasn’t a decision from the library, then we need to be deeply concerned about the fascism and undermining of professional library workers that allowed the county to relocate those books.

Find below a piece from earlier this year about how what happens at the schools doesn’t stay at the schools. We need to remain vigilant. You have the power to make change, and certainly, folks like the Florida Freedom to Read Project would welcome as much support as they can get to fight the destruction of public schools, public libraries, and the freedom to read more broadly. If you can, show up at the Escambia County Library Board meeting on June 24–there will be a rally before the meeting for anti-book ban advocates.

Baggett certainly hasn’t given up. Neither can you or I.

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This is the second in a series of posts that will offer insights and calls to action based on the results of three recent surveys conducted by Book Riot and the EveryLibrary Institute. The surveys explored parental perceptions of public libraries, parental perceptions of librarians, and parental perceptions of school libraries. The first post in the series emphasized how data overwhelmingly supports libraries and library workers.

Screen shot from article: https://fredericksburg.com/news/local/education/spotsylvania-superintendent-school-division-is-not-banning-books/article_e4189a0e-74e1-11ee-b4fe-47ac9a4bdec6.html

A particularly common sentiment among the groups and individuals pushing to have books pulled from school libraries is that they’re not banning books. Because the books are available in public libraries, they claim that they are simply removing the books — parents can take their kids to other places where those titles remain available. It has become such a common refrain that even Googling the phrase “we’re not banning books” will lead to dozens of stories with some variation of the explanation that their removal is only on one front: the school. We know this to be patently untrue, as public libraries and bookstores have also been subject to calls for books to be banned.

Despite the fervor over “parental rights,” most parents not only trust librarians — school and public librarians rank in the top 5 most trusted professions — but they overwhelmingly believe that their children are safe in libraries. 93% of parents state their child is safe in the school library, with 80% trusting school librarians to select age- and content-appropriate materials for the school library and 82% trusting those school librarians to recommend appropriate material to their children.

In the current book banning climate, there is a pattern worth paying attention to: what begins in public schools seeps into the public library. This begins at the ground level in board meetings and then emerges in higher-level offices. Proposed legislation at the public school level has seen success — look at the Texas READER Act, the expansion of Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill, Iowa’s S.F. 496 (currently partially enjoined), Indiana’s HB 1147, Kentucky’s SB 5 — in part because it is an easy sell to legislators. They want to protect kids or at least be on record, looking as though they want to protect kids. What better way to do just that than through laws that put parents front and center in the schools? To the average person not paying attention to what’s actually happening, it sounds good.

That is the same mentality behind the emphasis that book banners aren’t banning books because the kids can get them at the public library.

Screen shot from article: https://www.jsonline.com/story/news/education/2023/10/24/parents-speak-about-books-banned-from-menomonee-falls-high-school/71291144007/

Mississippi’s 2023 bill, HB 1315, was one of the first to directly impact both school and public library materials simultaneously. Digital materials need to be regulated in order to “protect” minors from pornographic materials in either type of institution — and given the response to the story of everyone under 18 being locked out of their public library’s Hoopla and Overdrive/Libby resources upon its enactment, the reality of what choking public access looks like was shocking. For those paying attention, though, it wasn’t a surprise. Indeed, it was among the first places such overreaching laws showed the truth underlying the rhetoric of “kids can get it at the public library.”

The same story played out in Tennessee, where, as of December 2023, anyone under 18 now needs parental permission to access any areas of the library where books published for adults are shelved — including reference materials — in Sumner County. Teenagers can legally drive themselves to the library, but they cannot borrow The Bluest Eye or nonfiction books to write a report without getting mommy or daddy’s permission.

This did not begin with the public library, though.

Since 2022, the Sumner County Public Schools have been dealing with book challenges. The first came from a member of a local “parental rights” group, Safeguard Our Schools, who found a book about racism too “divisive” for the district; upon the meeting to discuss the book, Sumner County’s own school board saw a member demand a review of Lawn Boy, too, and if not, he’d turn them over to authorities.

The parent who lodged the initial complaint in October 2022 stated, of course, that she believed books like the one she found distasteful were fine at the public library.

Screen shot from article: https://www.wkrn.com/news/local-news/sumner-county-debates-banning-book-from-schools/?ipid=promo-link1

While the parental complaint was heard and, ultimately, the book was retained and deemed appropriate, the school board member’s challenge of Lawn Boy was successful. The book was banned in the district.

Safeguard Our Schools, the parental rights group from which the district’s initial challenge emerged, was a cohost of an event in the summer of 2021 that included members of Williamson County Moms For Liberty (they began demanding book removals in their county schools in fall 2021), alongside the county’s Republican party, and a member of the Sumner County commissioners, Jeremy Mansfield. Mansfield has been an advocate for restrictive policies in the county libraries and has had a role in choosing who serves on the public library’s board. Ideas for “safeguarding” students are not about the schools. They’re about spreading the ideas into every public arena possible. Schools were the testing ground.

screen shot from article: https://www.wsbtv.com/news/local/fulton-county/fulton-county-removes-4-book-titles-school-libraries-calling-them-sexually-explicit/HSUACZJG35EDZCI52PT35YRLJE/

In Murfreesboro, Tennessee, Rutherford County Public Library and its materials have been explicitly targeted by the county commission’s slate of new “public decency” ordinances that outlawed queer people. Though the ordinances have been repealed, the damage to the public library and access to LGBTQ+ books there has been done.

This didn’t begin in the public library, either. Murfreesboro, Tennessee, schools were hit first. Tennessee’s new law led to educator Sydney Rawls posting on TikTok how she spent one of her Saturdays — sitting in her classroom going through every book in it to determine whether or not it was permitted to remain. The video went viral and led to more nonsense from book banners about how the law doesn’t ban books.

Per the parental perceptions surveys, educators also sat at the top of the list when it comes to trustworthy professions, alongside school and public librarians, nurses, and doctors.

PEN America, in their ongoing coverage and reporting on school book bans across the country, has pointed several times to school board policy as a major reason why so many books have been successfully yanked from schools. Materials policies across districts vary, but it is not variation in policy that’s the issue. It’s that many districts do not follow their own policies when a book challenge appears, choosing instead to either ignore or disregard what is in place or develop something altogether new:

Analyzing the 1,586 bans listed in the Index, PEN America found that the vast majority (98%) involved departures of various kinds from best practice guidelines designed to protect students’ First Amendment rights. School authorities in many cases have made opaque or ad hoc decisions, in some cases circumventing existing policies. This trend is well-evidenced at the district-level. Of 76 districts that have banned books from school libraries in some way, only 43 have transparent policies which either follow or are substantially similar to the guidelines and best practices recommended by the NCAC and ALA. This means that in 33 districts where library books have been banned, there are either no public or transparent policies accessible online, or these policies fall short of established safeguards, in terms of their emphasis on objectivity or protection from content- or viewpoint-based manipulation. Further, we found that among these 76 districts only 11 have these reconsideration policies and have followed them consistently for every challenge, resulting in a relatively small number of bans, 33 in total.

Further, PEN adds that:

96% of bans in the Index were initiated by school administrators or board members, in a wide range of ways, sometimes in response to comments from community members at board meetings, and rarely with the requisite written forms that most district policies officially require. These forms are important in that they require the complainant to demonstrate familiarity with the book as whole and to specify their objections in terms that can be reviewed. […]  Districts do vary in their processes, so not all administrators who initiated reconsideration committees or simply removed book titles from library shelves and classrooms of their own volition did so in contravention of specific applicable policies. But given the availability of long-established best practices concerning transparency and established procedures to uphold First Amendment rights in the context of challenges to school library books, the trends to the contrary are stark.

None of this is by accident. None of this is a one-time thing.

When we look at the trend to shift from legislating down to the titles available in public school libraries and understand that public libraries are not only not immune — despite claims to the contrary — but are, in fact, the next target, we need to prepare. This means stronger public library collection policies, more thorough challenge forms, and ongoing conversations between the library workers, the library board, and the respective communities about the purpose and role of the institution.

It means talking about the kids and their role in all of this, too.

Parents see themselves as the people in charge of what their children read. 90% of parents stated they are the ones who should decide what their children read in the public library, while 70% of parents say the same when it comes to school libraries. This 20% difference is partly explained by the settings and beliefs about those settings: those parents consider the school fully in loco parentis. This 20% difference also might be credited to successful rhetoric from the far-right sowing distrust about schools, school librarians, and educators — ”parental rights” is a clever and effective marketing tool and easy to push, particularly if your evidence is lying through omission. Parents have always had rights in schools, and the vast majority of public schools have opt-out options for just about any curriculum; moreover, parents themselves are responsible for doing the work as parents to educate their students about what books they do and do not find appropriate.

Emphasizing that “parental rights” means that parents have the right to do the parenting is crucial. It’s a newly minted phrase for something that has been there all along. These same “parental rights” advocates seek power over not only their children but all children. Stopping at the schools won’t be enough. They don’t “coparent with the government” because they want to be the government.

The 20% difference is important, too, because it suggests what could be coming next for public libraries. If more public libraries become targets of book banners seeking to “clean up” the content, not only do we have further proof that the book banners are liars, but we know their lies are creating dissonance for the average parent who never before had a reason to distrust their own instincts as parents.

Now, we turn to using the very promises made by book banners in their school board performances against them. As they come for the public libraries — and they are — where and how do they expect kids can get the books they demanded be removed from the schools now? Wasn’t the public library part of the bargain? If this is about “parental rights” in schools, then why are public libraries having their collections challenged? There’s no such thing as porn for children, just as there is already a legally-established guide for determining whether or not a material meets the definition of obscenity.

That material isn’t in any library.

Book banning is deeply unpopular. Between 63% and 74% of parents say book bans infringe on their rights as parents, and it is an issue they bring with them to the polls. They do not want their kids subject to the rules developed by parents who are unlike them and who do not share their morals, values, or beliefs. And yet, this is precisely what is happening in schools, where a vocal minority has spoken on behalf of the majority.

At the end of the day, it is, of course, the kids who lose out.

None of this is meant to put schools and libraries against one another. It’s meant instead to emphasize how each institution being in the crosshairs of right-wing politics can benefit and learn from one another. The vast majority of parents believe every school needs a school librarian, that the vast majority of parents trust librarians to select and recommend materials in an age-appropriate way, and that public and school libraries are safe and staffed by trustworthy professionals.

Most parents have never felt uncomfortable with a book checked out by their child at the public or the school library; most children have never been uncomfortable with what they’ve borrowed either. That is proof itself of strong, thoughtful parenting.

Children are the pawns in this “parental rights” movement, seen not as fully complex, independent humans but as extensions of an agenda. Their right to access materials is being choked at as many access points as the activists can reach to keep it that way. The mission won’t stop at schools.

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