Is this a school board meeting or did I inadvertently join the worst kind of book club? It is a Tuesday evening in December in Duval County, Florida. I am here with fellow members of a local advocacy group, Public School Defenders, to speak to our school board members and community-at-large. Our group regularly attends these meetings to advocate for teachers, students, and families. Tonight, I plan to voice my support for a wonderful local organization which provides thousands of books to our students. I notice a theme with comments belonging to proud members of Moms for Liberty and other ultra-conservative fringe organizations (who are also frequent attendees at school board meetings). They are taking turns reading sexually explicit passages from a few books available in some of our middle and high school libraries.
When one of these individuals arrives at the podium to speak, she delivers a preamble about how she will be spelling out certain words in her chosen passage because of how crude the language is. She immediately launches into the passage and utters the words “n****r,” “rape,” “bitch,” and “pussy” without flinching. I’m standing behind her waiting for my turn to speak and my jaw drops. The ease with which the racial epithet glided out of her mouth was jarring. Several sentences later she makes a point to dramatically spell out the word F-U-C-K several times (apparently this was the only word she felt was crude enough to necessitate a spelling lesson). These theatrics are meant to induce pearl-clutching and a reactionary demand for removing even more books from library shelves.
Another speaker waves her arm in disgust towards the audience and states, “And you can totally tell the pedophiles in the room if they don’t want this [books containing sexual content] to be taken out of schools because diversity, this is the meaning of diversity now, is porn and pedophilia and sexualizing our children (sic).” Not only did her hate-fueled ramblings make no sense, but she referred to those of us in the room who don’t support censorship as pedophiles.
The shock tactics of reading these sexually explicit book excerpts in school board meetings are not new. This has been occurring in school board meetings across Florida and even across the country. These ultra-conservative groups attempt to make the point that if a book can’t be read aloud in a public setting, it is not appropriate for any student to read. However, reading a sexually explicit passage out of context and out loud in a school board meeting is not the same as a student (or adult) self-selecting an age-appropriate book to read on their own time. There is also a substantial difference in what is appropriate reading material for an elementary school student versus a high schooler. The same can be said for any other media consumed by our children, be it movies, magazines, TV shows, and anything on the Internet. I trust librarians and media specialists to do their jobs and curate age-appropriate content for our students. I also know it is my responsibility as a parent to have conversations with my child and be aware of the media they are consuming.
To be clear, no parent or caregiver wants their child exposed to pornography or any other material that is not age appropriate. It also needs to be said that sexual content in a book does not automatically equal pornography. To quote Judiciary Chairman Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) during a Senate hearing on book bans, “No one is advocating for sexually explicit content to be available in an elementary school library or in [the] children’s section of the library….I understand and respect that parents may choose to limit what their children read, especially at younger ages….But no parent should have the right to tell another parent’s child what they can and cannot read in school or at home. Every student deserves access to books that reflect their experiences and help them better understand who they are.”
The reality is this: our kids do not exist in a vacuum. They live in the same messy, complicated world we inhabit. Our children are diverse in their race, ethnicity, sexuality, family make-up, belief systems, and their lived experiences. A heartbreaking number of students face adversity in the way of poverty, abuse, neglect, and physical and mental health issues. Many of the people loudly chanting about protecting our children from “pornography in schools” are the same people speaking with disgust about providing free school lunches, railing against efforts to provide comprehensive age-appropriate sex education, and strongly resisting legislation which would protect our children and schools from gun violence. Their cries to protect our children fall flat when it is clear they are just fighting for censorship in books and education. As for me and my fellow Public School Defenders, we will continue to show up and advocate for the safety and well-being of ALL students and teachers in our beloved public schools.