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Florida students protest their school district's book ban

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

This week, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis called reports of book bans in Florida a hoax. But for one school district in the Tampa Bay area, it's real. As Kerry Sheridan reports from member station WUSF, students have been fighting the removal of Toni Morrison's novel, "The Bluest Eye." And a warning - this story contains a mention of sexual violence.

KERRY SHERIDAN, BYLINE: It was standing room only at the Pinellas County School Board meeting in mid-February. Near the door, sandwiched in with a crowd of students, was Largo High English teacher Heidi Arndt.

HEIDI ARNDT: I feel like I'm living on the pages of a dystopian novel, and it is a frightening time to be a teacher. And there is a big slew of our students right there.

SHERIDAN: She points to dozens of students filling the seats in the school board chambers, waiting for their turn to speak.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

HANNAH HIPOLITO: There is irony in banning books when so many of the greatest works of literature warn us of the repercussions of doing so.

ANDREW LARSEN: I believe that the decision to ban the book was made hastily and without the proper procedures.

PRISHA SHERDIWALA: Even though others may not want to read this in public, as young humans - some of us who will be adults in less than a year - we are capable of engaging with these challenging ideas.

SHERIDAN: Those were high school students Hannah Hipolito, Andrew Larsen and Prisha Sherdiwala. At issue are two pages of "The Bluest Eye," a novel first published in 1970. Those passages describe a father raping his daughter. The parent who brought the complaint didn't come to this meeting. Instead, Michelle Stille voiced her concerns in a YouTube video.

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO)

MICHELLE STILLE: I was so shocked that any adult would expose 15-year-olds to such explicit descriptions of illegal activities that I had no response.

SHERIDAN: In the video, she described the school as promoting Marxist theories and the book...

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO)

STILLE: As their final piece of indoctrination in AP IB 11th-grade English.

SHERIDAN: This one complaint caused the school district to remove the book soon after. District leaders say it was because of a new law known as HB 1467. It spells out the felony charges school librarians could face if they allow any books that are pornographic or harmful to minors. The Florida Department of Education made a training video urging staff to, quote, "err on the side of caution when picking books." Here's an excerpt.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: If you would not be comfortable reading the material in a public setting, then you should lean towards not making the material available in a public school library for children.

SHERIDAN: Pinellas County School Board lawyer David Koperski said Morrison's book was pulled because employees were heeding the state's instructions.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DAVID KOPERSKI: And so we now have to follow that because, as I said, that has the force of the law at this point.

SHERIDAN: Among those addressing the board in mid-February was 16-year-old Eliza Lane. She pointed to legal arguments for keeping "The Bluest Eye" on shelves at schools. For one, the same law, she says, requires a book's literary merit on the whole to be considered, and...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ELIZA LANE: "The Bluest Eye" was banned, to my knowledge, for pornographic content. Pornography is defined in these guidelines as the depiction of erotic behavior intended to cause sexual excitement. That is not the purpose of those passages in "The Bluest Eye." It is to shock and horrify readers into empathy for this character and to help us to realize the flaws in our own society.

SHERIDAN: The students' complaints may have had an effect. District leaders said this week they're working on a new process for reviewing books and that they'll reexamine the decision to remove "The Bluest Eye" in the months ahead.

For NPR News, I'm Kerry Sheridan in Largo, Fla. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kerry Sheridan
Kerry Sheridan is a reporter and co-host of All Things Considered at WUSF Public Media.