Commentary: Six Short Lessons for Our School Board

By Mike Phillips

The Nassau County School Board was treated Thursday evening to a lesson on what literate citizens can do, something that a lot of people who’ve been behind book bans can’t do: Make a civil, well-thought-out and well-presented case for freedom to explore widely in school libraries. Freedom to meet, through books, people students never would meet in Yulee or on Centre Street. Freedom to be shocked and then learn from it. Freedom to be challenged, to grow up in the real world — not a sanitized world curated by people who want things their way and who, by the way, don’t appear to know much about literature.

Until the latest book bans, students might have met Toni Morrison, winner of both the Pulitzer Prize and the Nobel Prize in Literature. Her 11 novels aren’t easy to read, but doing so will help turn a teenager into an adult. Once you’ve read one of her books, you know how to immerse yourself In any book written with real depth.

Thursday’s speakers certainly didn’t like the latest cluster of bans, promoted by a far-right, sternly religious group. But instead of criticizing that, they focused on remedies for bans and on the importance of educators standing up for academic freedom and supporting parents who don’t want their children’s educations coerced by outside groups.

Here is a sample of what they said:

Melissa Moss – president of the Democratic Club of Amelia. She usefully pointed out that a new state law taking effect July 1 limits book objections by people who are not parents of students to one a month. In addition to the new state law, Moss noted that a recent lawsuit settlement requires notification of every school district that the Parental Rights in Education Act (known by some as the “Don’t Say Gay” law) does not apply to library books and that books used in classroom instruction cannot be banned simply for having LGBTQ+ characters in them. The rest of the school library is open to students with, of course, parental guidance and the assistance of a trained librarian.

She urged the district to accept no more book objections until the sensible provisions of the new law and NCSB policies, in the aftermath of Florida DOE notifications, have taken effect.

April Bogle – reading a letter from student mother Natalie Voytac. She made the case that banning books deprives students of the ability to explore the outside world. That it limits the intellectual stimulation of academic freedom and exposure to diversity of viewpoints. She strongly objected to outside groups making scholastic decisions instead of parents, teachers and librarians.

Willow Emerson – commenting on behalf of student mother Chris Schneider, who was shocked to move here and discover book banning by people who want to protect students from literature on difficult topics rather than leave those decisions to parents and educators. They have a right to shelter their child from a book, but not to deprive other parents of the right to disagree.

Suzanne Sapp – who grew up here and had outstanding teachers who made her aware of the world outside her island home and saw to it that she leaarned from reading. That educational start ultimately led her to a Ph.D. She moved back here so that her young son would have the same access to academic excellence that she had. “Do not let people with zero expertise decide” what her son can and can’t read.

Linda Hart Green – a retired American Baptist minister, local art gallery operator and columnist for the Observer – pointed out that there are procedures for reinstating banned books, and she hopes they are used. Why? She has learned from books that we are made in the image of God and that the core lesson of scripture is one of love.

Book-banning is coersion, she said, and “coersion is not of God. Nor is the book-banner’s fears of human diversity. “Why did God create a rainbow of diversity?” she asked. And she offered a remedy for book-banning: “Let’s ban hate and bullying.”

Shari Roan – An author whose local book club decided to read some of Duval County’s banned books. Hers (also banned here) was “The Hate You Give” by Angie Thompson, an “honest examination of racism that preaches tolerance.” We should trust our students, parents and librarians, she said, “and not some small group.”

It was a literate, intelligent and thoughtful education in six three-minute commentaries on the fundamental purpose of our American republic: freedom.

I hope the school board got the point.

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Mark Tomes
Active Member
Mark Tomes(@mtomes)
26 days ago

It is nice to hear of these intelligent and compassionate viewpoints in our community. there are other people in our community, and those outside of it, that want to reshape our world into an intolerant, bland, and paternalistic version of a 1950s sitcom. Children can handle tough discussions, sometimes better than their parents.

Noble Member
24 days ago
Reply to  Mark Tomes

wow you are impressed by a collection of leftists. As a Nassau county resident, the most intolerance I see around here is from liberals like yourself, if someone dares to disagree with you.

Noble Member
26 days ago

Let the “difficult subjects” be taught by the parents. Educators should stick to reading, writing and arithmetic.

Active Member
26 days ago

Thank you to every speaker for standing up for what is right!

Betsie Huben
Noble Member
Betsie Huben(@betsie-huben)
26 days ago

For me & most, this is not about WHAT is in books that is the issue. That is about content. Content is not being “banned”. This is about WHEN content is presented to students. Making sure that students are prepared to grasp any content being presented is a fair and reasonable consideration for the state when designing curriculum and purchasing texts & ancillary materials with taxpayer dollars. To give another example that is not a lightening rod for folks, let’s talk about math. Unless they are uniquely “gifted”, it is not until about age 12, youngsters begin to move from concrete thinking abilities on to abstract thinking abilities. And it is a process! Not every child starts the transition at the same time nor do they arrive at the same time. It is why districts employ “differentiated” learning tactics. The WHAT of Algebra and Calculus is not banned. It is WHEN to teach it, so as to be the most effective in doing so, that is the question. With very rare exception, is not going to be productive to teach various content below age of 12. Developmentally, the vast majority of students will not be ready for it. Examining content across all disciplines (math, science, history, literature, arts, etc.) to determine if it’s age-appropriate for kids based on their developmental readiness to process it is not new. It’s literally the DOE and the local district’s job.

Peggie Weeks
Active Member
Peggie Weeks(@pegweeksgmail-com)
26 days ago

Mike, you left out Sheila Cocchi’s brilliant “Bible ban” presentation. She used a few salacious Biblical passages to make an important point. She of course wants no books to be banned. Thank you Sheila!

Active Member
26 days ago

It is my understanding, and I may be wrong, but these are state statutes and not board policy that are responsible for the banning of books. I have said before that most school libraries are populated with books for that age group in attendance at that particular school. If the citizens of Nassau County are going to agree to provide legal defense to the administrators, librarians and teachers prosecuted for violations of the status that is another discussion. Further, I feel certain that the refusal to enforce the law would be looked at by the DOE to cut off all funding. How much money does the State provide to Nassau County for educational purposes and are we ready to have our taxes increased to make up that shortfall?
It seems to me that the appropriate forum for these discussions is with our elected State Representatives and State Senators not local school boards with no authority to pursue these suggested actions!

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