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Florida says school principals could be penalized over book restrictions

TALLAHASSEE — Florida education officials on Wednesday voted to put the onus on school principals to ensure students have access to “appropriate” reading materials in classrooms and libraries, saying such a step is needed to prevent the politicization of the state’s book challenge process.

The decision comes two years into a surge of book objections in Florida public schools, and two months after Gov. Ron DeSantis directed his administration to that he said have intentionally misinterpreted the state’s laws for political gain.

In response to that directive, the State Board of Education unanimously voted to punish school principals who direct school personnel to prevent students from accessing reading materials that have not been determined to be inappropriate by state law or a school district policy.

But if a parent or county resident follows the book challenge process as laid out in state law, and the district determines the material should be removed from a school library or classroom, the school principal would be allowed to prevent students from accessing the material, said K-12 Chancellor Paul Burns.

Burns said that the rule is “clear and reinforces the expectation that school leaders should never arbitrarily deny students access to great reading materials.”

Florida Education Association President Andrew Spar said during the State Board of Education meeting that he is concerned about the intent of the rule.

“It seems to be moving blame onto administrators and people in our schools,” Spar said. “What we need, and what I have heard teachers ask for throughout the state … is clarity around the process as it relates to removing books from shelves.”

Florida law says that any material that is subject to an objection on the basis that it is pornographic or that it “depicts or describes sexual conduct” must be removed within five school days of the complaint being filed. The law also says that the material needs to be made unavailable to students of the school until the objection is resolved.

The law also requires certified media specialists to approve all library books that are made available to students.

After that law went into effect, state education officials told local school officials to “err on the side of caution” when selecting books for school libraries in order to comply with the law. Following the state-issued guidance, some teachers ended up in classrooms.

Without providing specific examples, Burns said school principals are being held to a higher standard of accountability because he said some educators “were removing all of their classroom libraries” to comply with the state law.

“Unfortunately, since that legislation passed, there have been some bad actors who are in school leadership positions who have intentionally deprived students of having access to high-quality reading materials by politicizing the book review process,” Burns said.

With the state rule in place, school principals could have their educator’s certificate suspended or revoked if they are found to be in violation of the new standards. The state does not have any penalties in place for the public as of today.

DeSantis initially sought to fine individuals who file frivolous challenges, but the Legislature only agreed to send him legislation that would limit the number of complaints that can be filed each month by residents .