Jackie Rosario, who is facing a stiff challenge in her bid for re-election to her District 2 School Board seat, said last week board members could face “felony charges” for returning to school libraries books with sexually explicit content and other materials state law deems harmful to children.
Rosario said the board’s Feb. 28 adoption of a protocol giving parents the option to restrict the level of access their children have to books in school libraries – she cast the lone vote against it – doesn’t preclude board members from being criminally charged.
Speaking at the board’s workshop session, Rosario called the parental-consent policy an “illegal option” because it allowed the books in question to remain in the libraries.
Her remarks appeared to stun the other three board members in attendance. (Mara Schiff missed the meeting.)
School Board Chairman Teri Barenborg immediately challenged Rosario’s assertion, saying, “Please don’t say you think that’s the case – because it needs to be found true.”
“But it is the case,” Rosario replied, adding, “The law is the law. There’s no getting around what the law says. It is a felony. … I didn’t say that we are being charged. I said the law trumps parental consent in this case. Parental consent does not trump the law.”
Superintendent David Moore said the School District’s opt-out policy was “legally reviewed and vetted to ensure that we are on legal ground.”
However, Moore confirmed the Sheriff’s Office – in response to a complaint filed by a member of a small-but-vocal fringe group that claims to be nonpartisan while advocating for parental rights – was investigating the School Board’s handling of the book controversy.
In a phone interview last weekend, Moore said he has spoken directly with Sheriff Eric Flowers on several occasions since the complaint was filed, and he expects the investigation to be concluded within the next two weeks.
Moore said he doesn’t expect any criminal charges to be filed because the School Board responded in good faith to the fringe group’s challenge of 156 books alleged to have been inappropriate for students in any grade.
The district created a committee composed of its media specialists, who he said conducted a comprehensive review of the books – five of which were removed and 25 that were moved from middle-school to high school libraries.
All of the removed books were in high school libraries.
“We had a pretty solid process, and we’ve done more than pretty much every other district in the state,” Moore said, adding that the committee examined the “full literary value of the entire book – not two-sentence excerpts.”
Moore said parents should be able to decide which books their children are reading and what materials they’re checking out from school libraries. He didn’t understand why Rosario believed that allowing parents to do so is illegal.
“You got me on that,” he said.
As of last week, Moore said, the parents of only seven students had chosen to restrict access to school library books. Some of the books challenged were purchased by the district as far back as the 1980s.
According to Florida statutes, it is a third-degree felony for an adult to knowingly distribute to a minor on school property – or post on campus – any book, pamphlet, magazine, or other printed matter that contains an explicit and detailed verbal description or narrative accounts of sexual excitement or sexual conduct and is harmful to minors.
Such a crime is punishable by up to five years in prison and a $5,000 fine, and each individual act constitutes a separate offense.
Neither Barenborg nor the other two School Board members who attended the workshop said they were worried about the possibility of being criminally charged.
“Am I concerned? No,” School Board Vice-Chairman Peggy Jones said. “I believe our book-review process was a good one and accomplished what we needed to do.”
School Board member Brian Barefoot, who preceded Barenborg as chairman, said the book-review process implemented by the district was properly publicized, seemingly effective and entirely legal, adding, “We don’t do anything our attorney doesn’t sign off on.”
Rosario also attempted to insinuate that Moore tried to hide the Sheriff’s Office investigation from the School Board, or at least her.
“Have we been contacted by the Sheriff’s Office at all with regard to any complaints about these books being currently in our library system?” Rosario asked Moore. “Are we under investigation about the placement of these books?”
Moore confirmed the Sheriff’s Office was investigating, saying the agency is obligated to do so when a complaint is filed.
“Because board members weren’t aware of that, right?” Rosario said.
Barenborg, Jones and Barefoot quickly jumped in, all of them saying they knew of the investigation.
Rosario then said she hadn’t received “anything” from Moore about the investigation, and asked if he had discussed the matter with other board members. He responded, “As it came up in briefings, yes.”
Again, Barenborg intervened, saying, “We didn’t receive anything in writing. I asked a question.”
Last weekend, Jones said she was puzzled by Rosario’s grilling of Moore: “If she didn’t know anything about it, then why did she bring it up?”
Rosario made her remarks during a School Board discussion about creating a committee to establish a community standard for reviewing library books – and even textbooks – to determine whether their contents are in compliance with state law.
The dialogue was prompted by Gov. Ron DeSantis’ March 25 signing into law House Bill 1467, which requires school districts to list all library and instructional materials on their websites, with a multi-step review process before they can be approved.
The process must include mandatory public hearings and reasonable opportunity for public comment.
The new law also requires elementary schools to hire Florida Department of Education-trained media specialists to curate materials. It also compels school districts to report books and other materials that prompt public objections.
The DOE would then publish that list, which could result in removing books found to be not in compliance with state standards, such as those that include Critical Race Theory and Common Core.
School Board members here say the formation of a committee that would establish community standards, identify the criteria by which books will be assessed and provide a transparent review process would give credibility to its recommendations.
Given the polarization in both the country and community, however, they know there will be disagreements over what is age appropriate and acknowledge that compromise will be difficult.
“People have different opinions on what’s OK for kids to look at, obviously,” Barenborg said, adding, “I believe the committee can come up with a community standard according to the statute.”
Board members said the makeup of the committee, which must include parents with children in public school, will be the most important – and most challenging – part of the process.
“The most important thing for me will be who is chosen to be on this committee,” Jones said, adding that the board oversees a “majority minority district,” so it’s crucial that the committee includes diverse voices.
In addition to white members, Jones said the committee should include representatives from the county’s black, Hispanic and LGBTQ communities. She also wants Richard Myhre, assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction, on the committee, and raised the possibility of including at least one high school senior.
“We need to hear from all representatives of this community if this is truly going to be a community standard,” she said. “We can never forget that.”
Moore said he will meet individually with board members and plans to present to them at their May workshop his recommendations for a timeline, how to move forward and what should be accomplished.
He’ll need to address how committee members will be chosen, how often the group should meet, how to post challenged materials on the district website and whether books in question should remain in libraries during the review process.
“It’s a tremendous amount of work for a staff that’s coming to the end of a long and challenging year, but it will be worth the effort,” Moore said. “Every school district in the state is dealing with this, but we’re choosing to go above and beyond.”
Once the committee is formed and the criteria for reviewing materials is established, Rosario wants the books already reviewed to be reconsidered. But Jones said doing so would set a “terrible precedent.”
Jones said the process in place when those books were reviewed was time-consuming, credible and effective, and there’s no need to look back.
“I think we move forward,” she said. “And if a parent doesn’t like a certain choice, as a parent they can say, ‘Nope, you’re not reading that,’ and fill out the opt-out form.”