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Duval Schools disputes that schoolbooks were banned

Banned books are shown at the Central Library, a branch of the Brooklyn Public Library system, in New York City on July 7, 2022.
Ted Shaffrey
Banned books are shown at the Central Library, a branch of the Brooklyn Public Library system, in New York City on July 7, 2022.

Duval Schools landed this week on a widely publicized list of districts banning schoolbooks, but the district contends the list is false.

PEN America, an organization advocating for free speech, released a tally of books banned across the country, including more than 550 in Florida, the second-most of any state. Only Texas banned more.

At least 175 of the books banned in Florida were in Duval County Public Schools, according to the report. Clay County Public Schools was shown with two banned books and St. Johns County with six. No other bans were found in Northeast Florida.

PEN America, a nonprofit group representing writers and editors, defines a book ban as any action taken against a book as a result of parent or community challenges, administrative decisions or action threatened by government officials — regardless of whether the book has been removed or simply restricted.

Duval Schools might disagree with that definition. None of the books on the list have been banned or challenged in Duval Schools, a spokeswoman told WJCT News on Tuesday.

Rather, the books are under review, a process complicated by staffing shortages as administrative staff cover for classroom vacancies.

The district ordered books in the Essential Voices Classroom Libraries collection in 2021, and the list includes many titles that must be reviewed to ensure they are grade-level appropriate, the spokeswoman said.

The collection includes 176 titles that, according to its distributors, are designed to make classroom libraries more diverse and inclusive. Titles include "Fry Bread: A Native American Family Story" by Kevin Noble Maillard, "Dim Sum for Everyone" by Grace Lin and "Pink Is For Boys" by Robb Perlman.

New Florida laws restrict how schools teach about sexual orientation, gender identity and race-related issues. Although the laws face court challenges, they have left school districts scrambling to comply.

Duval Schools this year decided to dramatically reduce its LGBTQ+ support guide and took down a 12-minute anti-bullying video that taught middle and high school students how to support their gay and transgender peers. The district also was criticized for removing rainbow stickers and posters that supported LGBTQ students.

PEN America's report, "Banned in the USA: The Growing Movement to Censor Books in Schools," documents the emergence of groups involved in coordinated efforts to ban books. PEN America has identified at least 50 groups — such as Moms for Liberty — advocating for bans at the national, state or local level.

“While we think of book bans as the work of individual concerned citizens, our report demonstrates that today's wave of bans represents a coordinated campaign to banish books being waged by sophisticated, ideological and well-resourced advocacy organizations,” Suzanne Nossel, chief executive officer of PEN America, said in a news release.

These groups share lists of books to challenge, swarm school board meetings, demand new rating systems for libraries, use inflammatory language about “grooming” and “pornography,” and even file criminal complaints against school officials, teachers and librarians, the report says.

“This censorious movement is turning our public schools into political battlegrounds, driving wedges within communities, forcing teachers and librarians from their jobs, and casting a chill over the spirit of open inquiry and intellectual freedom that underpin a flourishing democracy,” Nossel said.

The most frequently banned books were "Gender Queer: A Memoir" by Maia Kobabe (banned in 41 districts), followed by "All Boys Aren’t Blue" by George M. Johnson (banned in 29 districts) and "Out of Darkness" by Ashley Hope Pérez (banned in 24 districts).

Complaints about diversity and inclusion efforts have accompanied calls to remove books with protagonists of color, and numerous books have been targeted for simply featuring LGBTQ+ characters, PEN America said. Nonfiction histories of civil rights movements and biographies of people of color have been swept up in these campaigns.

“This rapidly accelerating movement has resulted in more and more students losing access to literature that equips them to meet the challenges and complexities of democratic citizenship,” said Jonathan Friedman, director of PEN America’s Free Expression and Education Programs and the lead author of the report.

“The work of groups organizing and advocating to ban books in schools is especially harmful to students from historically marginalized backgrounds, who are forced to experience stories that validate their lives vanishing from classrooms and library shelves,” Friedman said.

Randy comes to Jacksonville from the South Florida Sun Sentinel, where, as metro editor, he led investigative coverage of the Parkland school shooting that won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for public service. He has spent more than 40 years in reporting and editing positions in Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, Ohio and Florida. You can reach Randy at or on Twitter, @rroguski.