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Manatee County School board, wrestling with state law, gets an earful

Written by on Thursday, February 1, 2024

Teachers, students, parents, and a transgender woman condemn book bans.

By Johannes Werner

Original Air Date: Jan. 31, 2024

Host: In recent months, the Manatee County School Board has been blissfully spared of culture-war rhetoric. But the recent discussion about how to implement a new state law about school libraries prompted one school board member to talk about “filth and porn” in graphic novels he found in Manatee school libraries. And that, in turn, prompted youth organizers in the area to push back. Our news team has the details.

Johannes Werner: The Manatee school board had on yesterday’s agenda construction and renovations of two schools, worth three-digit millions. But it was a discussion in the December meeting that prompted a protest before the meeting, and action during public comment.

At issue is the implementation of House Bill 1467. Florida’s new “School Library and Instructional Materials” law requires school districts to adopt procedures for “determining and reviewing content for library media centers.” The school district set up a system under which — beginning with the next school year — people objecting to library books can download a form and submit it via email. The commissioners determined that school principals will be key to the follow up of book ban requests.

During the discussion about implementation, one board member brought up graphic novels in school libraries, saying they purport “filth” and “porn”.

That, in turn, prompted SEE into action. The Sarasota-based organization — SEE stands for Social Education through Equity” — was started last year by a recent high school graduate. SEE called supporters to join a read-in of banned books in the parking lot in front of the school administration building near downtown Bradenton. Eight people from that crowd signed up for public comment during the meeting.

Some of them continued the read-in, reading aloud passages of banned books, such as Toni Morrison’s Beloved to the board members. One parent, who also happens to be a teacher, said that graphic novels are not her personal favorite. But, she added, kids are entranced by them, and they can be deep. Others expressed their concern about taking away books from libraries when literacy among Manatee County students continues to be a challenge, about judging books by one passage, and about piling yet another task on already overworked school principals.

Indira Miller speaking before the School Board

To one public commenter, the book bans are deeply personal. Indira Miller, a transgender woman, suggested that it is mostly queerness portrayed in books that prompts demands for bans, and expressed concern about young people who are like her. Here is what she said.

Indira Miller: Hi, thank you for having me. I’m Indira Miller, a graduate from Florida public schools. I came out as transgender in 1989, before the internet, before there were any books about being transgender, even before the term transgender existed. And I still figured out I was transgender.

I want you to just think for a moment that every book you ever read growing up is about gay men. Tom Sawyer, gay. Huckleberry Finn, gay. Everybody’s gay. Every love story, they’re gay, every hero’s gay, every firefighter’s gay. Where do you find yourself in that? I want to make sure we’re representing LGBTQ kids, BIPOC kids, in the literature that’s available in our schools. That we aren’t over-policing things from a policy standpoint or religion.

I worked in international education for the world’s largest education company, worked closely with a Fulbright scholarship program. We need our kids to be ready to compete internationally. We need to be educated about the world we’re going into. How many books would you have to read, to change from being straight to gay? It just doesn’t happen. Allow us to have an education that represents all of us. 

You know, I can’t imagine what that could’ve been like, to read a book or see a movie or something on TV about a transgender person, it just didn’t exist; I thought I was from outer space. My church told me I was possessed by demons and the whole church did exorcisms on me, that’s what we did. My whole family disowned me, because they didn’t know what was going on. Perhaps I wouldn’t have tried to kill myself, at ten years old, at twenty one. I might not have gotten into drugs and alcohol, I don’t know. But I really believe if I just knew that I was okay, I was viable, that I had a path, that people would love me if I just had the strength and the courage to live my life, that I would go on to be a volunteer, that seven of my nephews and nieces would come live with me for free during college, that they’d become educators, you know, that I get to go in, to people that do struggle with addiction, and share my story of hope.

I was blessed to travel to many, many countries for my work, and I saw so many ways of life, so many religions, so many definitions of love, and it made my life so much richer. And I really implore all of you to allow that for your students. Keep the teachers able to speak to the students, keep books available. Don’t punish our children for the political nonsense that we’re all kind of caught in. We’re real people. No book made me trans. I figured I was trans without any literature, without any internet, it still happened. I had tonka trucks, I had GI Joe, even the one with kung fu grip, and I still knew I was a girl. So I just hope I can put a face to it. I’m a decent person, being kind matters to me, kids matter to me, the work you guys do matters to me. Thank you for listening to me. 

JW: On their website, a group called Community Patriots Manatee expressed their dissatisfaction with what they see as misinterpretation of the parental rights bill by the school board, and is urging its members to contact principals directly: “We believe the law is clear: material that is harmful to minors does not belong in schools. With or without parental consent. We are asking the Board and the Administration to accept the protection in the law and be bold about removing the books permanently and completely. If a progressive parent wants to fight the district to get them back into the schools, put the onus on them to prove why students need it.”

This has been Johannes Werner, reporting for WSLR News.

 

WSLR News aims to keep the local community informed with our 1/2 hour local news show, quarterly newspaper and social media feeds. The local news broadcast airs on Wednesdays and Fridays at 6pm.