Suitable classroom materials measure raises questions

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Submitted by Anne H. Oman

March 2, 2016 9:45 a.m.

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State Rep. Janet Adkins, Nassau County School Superintendent Candidate (File Photo)

Viewed against the backdrop of an upcoming election for Nassau County School Superintendent, an amendment inserted into a state education bill by Rep. Janet Adkins (R-Fernandina Beach) is raising some questions: what is suitable classroom material and who should determine it? And what constitutes political meddling in education?

The Suitable Classroom Materials Amendment, sponsored by Rep. Adkins, whose term is expiring and who is one of three candidates for the $157,000 a year school superintendent’s job, is now part of HB 669, which has been passed by the Florida House of Representatives and sent to the Senate. It specifies that parents of students in grades 6 through 12 would be notified of “any material containing mature or adult content” their children will be required to read and “of the procedures for objecting to his or her child’s use of a specific instructional material.”

In her published report to constituents, Rep. Adkins wrote that “the material some minors are being required to read raises questions about what would be considered harmful to minors or obscene “ under Florida’s criminal code. In an email to the Observer, she included the definitions of these terms under the relevant statute, FS 847:

“Harmful to minors” means any reproduction, imitation, characterization, description, exhibition, presentation, or representation, of whatever kind or form, depicting nudity, sexual conduct, or sexual excitement when it (a) primarily appeals to a prurient, shameful, or morbid interest; (b) is patently offensive to prevailing standards in the adult community as a whole with respect to what is suitable material or conduct for minors; and (c) taken as a whole is without serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value for minors.”

The statute defines “obscene” as “material which (a) the average person, applying contemporary community standards, would find, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest; (b) depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct as specifically defined herein; and (c) taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.”

She added that “the interpretation of the law is the responsibility of the Attorney General.”

In other words, it would be up to the Attorney General to decide whether to prosecute teachers or school officials under this law.

Nassau County teachers contacted about this issue said that the measure was unnecessary since parents are already notified about their children’s reading material and that procedures are already in place to object to particular books.

“This is a made-up problem,” said Valerie Snyder, a 24-year teacher at Fernandina Beach High School who was a finalist for Teacher of the Year in 2015. “There are already procedures in place. Our policy is that every parent receives a syllabus with required readings. And I don’t know any teacher that wouldn’t provide an alternative book if requested.”

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Ms. Snyder said she felt insulted by the measure: ‘We are professionals, and we have our students’ best interests at heart,” she told the Observer. “This is another hoop teachers are going to have to jump through. Our plates are already overflowing with procedures and paperwork. Why add a made-up problem when there are already enough real problems in education?”

“It would obviously create a whole lot more work for teachers,” said Dianne Febles, another Fernandina Beach High School teacher and a former president of the Nassau Teachers’ Association. “People entrust their kids to the school system, and trust teachers to use common sense. The books are in line with state standards and with Common Core. Teachers don’t go out and find their own books – what teacher would have time?”

Rep. Adkins acknowledged that there are set procedures available for parents who object to classroom materials, which she cited in an e-mail to a reporter: “Each school board must adopt a policy regarding a parent’s objection to his or her child’s which clearly describes a process to handle all objections and provides for resolution.”

According to Linda Morris, Interim Executive Director of Administrative Services for the Nassau County School Board, the process is spelled out is spelled out on the board’s website, and forms are available there for parents who want to object to curriculum material. When the form, a Request for Reconsideration of Materials, is submitted, a school committee considers the request and makes a determination within 10 working days. If the parent is not satisfied with the result, he or she may appeal to the School Board.

“I was a principal in the district for 24 years,” said Ms. Morris, “and in all that time, only one parent in my area filed a Request for Reconsideration, and that was for a library book on a summer reading list.”

If the Adkins legislation becomes law, “we would interpret it through guidelines from the Department of Education,” Ms. Morris added.

Asked what prompted her to propose this amendment, Rep. Adkins cited an issue raised by a school board member in Collier County, an unnamed Jacksonville parent, and the Florida Citizens’ Alliance.

The Florida Citizens’ Alliance is a group whose focus is to “stop Federal overreach and restore our individual rights guaranteed under the Constitution” and whose principal initiatives are opposition to Common Core and protection of gun rights. On its website is a video by Deirdre Clemmons, “educator and mother of 10,” about objectionable material in AP English courses in Collier County. Among the books cited are Angela’s Ashes, by Frank McCourt, The Awakening by Kate Chopin, which is on The College Board’s list of 101 Great Books Recommended for College-Bound Readers, and The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993.

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Rep. Adkins did not respond to questions about specific books, but said: “This is no different than what is required to allow your child to watch a PG-13 movie. Parental notification and the opportunity to object is the clear principle here that will hopefully allow parents to make informed decisions about when and what type of material that contains graphic, sexually explicit conduct is used in the education of their child.”

Rep. Adkins drafted a second amendment that would have subjected materials used in Dual Enrollment courses to the same scrutiny. In these courses, qualified students receive both high school and college credit from Florida State University at Jacksonville.

Students who take these courses, and their parents, are required to sign a contract acknowledging that “course content is college-level and may contain material, situations, and examples that may offend immature students. Students choosing to take college classes do so with the understanding that course rigor and content is intended for a mature, college-level student.’

Rep. Atkins withdrew this amendment for lack of support but indicated she has not given up.

“I think it’s important at all levels for our school board to be responsible for the curriculum,” she stated, noting that there are minors in Dual Enrollment courses and that there is no set procedure for parents who object to reading material to request a substitution.

Asked if her initiative was triggered by a personal experience as a parent, Rep. Atkins did not answer directly except to confirm that “I have two children who attend public schools in Nassau County” and to advise that “persons that disclose information about a student are in violation of the federal law that prohibits these acts.”

About half of Florida counties, including Nassau, elect, rather than appoint the superintendent of schools. Candidates, in addition to Rep. Adkins, who has served on the county school board and currently chairs the K12 Subcommittee of the House Education Committee, are Dr. Kathy Knight Burns, the current vice-chairman of the Nassau County School Board and a long-time educator who was named Nassau County Teacher of the Year three times, and Cheryl Reynolds James, a realtor who lives in Bryceville. Rep. Adkins and Dr. Burns will compete in the Republican primary on August 30. Only registered Republicans may vote in this closed primary. The winner will face Ms. James, a Libertarian in the general election November 8.

Editor’s Note: Anne H. Oman relocated to Fernandina Beach from Washington, D.C. Her articles have appeared in The Washington Post, The Washington Star, The Washington Times, Family Circle and other publications. We thank Anne for her contributions to the Fernandina Observer.

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21 Responses to Suitable classroom materials measure raises questions

  1. Genece Minshew says:

    Great! Now Rep. Adkins is taking her marching orders from the Florida Citizens Alliance. Just one more reason we do not need a politician running our school system.

  2. Cynthia Sakata says:

    To all no party affiliated or democratic voters – you are not eligible to vote in the 8/30 superintendent election UNLESS you switch your party affiliation to Republican before August 1, 2016 (you can always switch back afterwards!). We need educators speaking for our students/parents, not agenda-driven politicians working on behalf of special interest groups.

    • Peggy Bulger says:

      We also need to change the law governing local elections! Why do we need to have the race for Tax Collector, Member of the Ocean and Hwy Commission, and ESPECIALLY the Superintendent of Schools be a partisan election? Basically, for $900 the Adkins machine has disenfranchised half of the registered voters in the county!!

  3. Robert Warner says:

    I suggest checking Ms. Oman’s link, Drill down into the organization from the linked page. Check sponsorship. Check ideology. It bothers me to see an unqualified politician running on an extremist political agenda, apparently relying on a gamed election process to avoid a face to face general election ballot contest with Kathy Burns (that would involve all registered County voters, not just the “GOP”). Our top tier Nassau County School System and, most importantly, all of our kids who go to school daily to learn about the world around them – deserve better.

    • Kris Stadelman says:

      That site is one of many against “Common Core” school teaching. Very little traffic on the site (biggest day was about 20 hits.)
      Poorly educated parents are frightened their kids will quickly become smarter than they are.

  4. Sharyl Wood says:

    Thank you for presenting this to the public. It is important to know the background on legislative action and to expose the motivations and/or incentives prompting legislators to promote an agenda.

  5. Karen Thompson says:

    Great article Ann. I wonder what Janet the politician thinks about allowing Rayonier/Terra Point officials to choose the curriculum for the new school in Yulee. Now that’s corporate overreach that should prompt a big fat lawsuit in Nassau County. As long as a corporation gives a slice of land for a new school (which taxpayers will pay for) the county will roll over and give them anything they want…..including responsibility for the education of our children.

    • Sharyl Wood says:

      Rayonier/Terra Pointe is NOT choosing the curriculum for the new school. As a community partner, they have the privilege of suggesting curriculum topics, however, the responsibility for choosing curriculum rests solely on the Nassau County School Board. The School Board is not giving away its autority to select the curriculum!

  6. Al Smith says:

    Surprised, you shouldn’t be. Yet another example of Tallahassee politician’s medal-ling in educational decisions with a “we know best” mentality, never mind that almost none of them, including Ms. Adkins, have ever spent a day working in a school and or for a school system. Ms. Adkins proposed amendment is one of the most ridiculous things I have read in a long time. Did Ms. Adkins actually propose in her law that it would be the responsibility of the Florida Attorney General to review each case and decide whether to CRIMINALLY PROSECUTE schoolteachers for this??? Seriously??? If Ms. Adkins proposed law depicts her train of thought, do we really want her overseeing our school system, our children’s education, and supervising our teachers as the School Superintendent? I think not, our schoolteachers are some of the best in the state of Florida and deserve better then this.

    • Jason Collins says:

      I see a lot of negative comments to Rep Adkins including labels like “extremist” and “government over reach”. Isn’t this exactly what the argument against common core is? Nationalization of curriculum based on the opinions of elected or appointed bureaucrats. Yes, and the election system is hardly gamed. The fact is that most people in Nassau County hold to Conservative and the Judeo Christian values that made this County, State, and Country great and the Republican ticket generally gives us the best chance of keeping it this way. People move here from out of state then saturate our local media, school boards, commissions, and councils with their liberal activist beliefs and demean people of faith and their core values. Knocking parental intelligence and comments like”scared their children will be smarter than they are” are demeaning to good parents who just want to make sure their children aren’t being forced to read pornographic or anti Christian propaganda peddled or mandated by leftist school boards popping up in areas around the State. Conservative values help make our little pocket of Florida paradise and if you don’t like it register as a Republican or keep moving down the coast to Palm Beach /Broward/Miami- Dade.

      • Robert Warner says:

        Jason – Sorry, but most of us don’t buy into your “anti Christian propaganda”, “liberal activist beliefs” logic. No one is “demeaning people of faith”. The
        “Enlightenment” brought us folks like Voltaire, Rousseau, Decartes, John Locke, and David Hume. Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson were students of the “Enlightenment”. John Dewey and his concept of public education is a structural part of what remains of our problem solving, civil society.
        Want a private, religious education, no problem. Just don’t ask the public to pay for it.

  7. Beverly Williams says:

    No amount of legislation, partisan or bipartisan, can replace close parental supervision on a daily basis. After checking the student’s homework assignments each evening, parents might consider checking what is being sent and received on the student’s iPhone and laptop. I would venture to guess that that content is far more corrupt than what is being taught in the public school system. Of course, this might be an oversimplification on my part. (Or, perhaps I have no political axe to grind.) Admittedly, I did grow up in an era when a “nanny state” did not rear children; during a time when ultimately parents took personal responsibility for their children’s overall well-being. But I digress.

    • Jason Collins says:

      You make some valid points about parental responsibility but I think the idea of the bill is to give parents recourse when a child’s grade may depend on the reading of objectionable material.

  8. Dr Timothy Lucey says:

    Please listen to Cynthia Sakata. We need EVERYONE to get out and vote. We need educators in this position, NOT career politicians with agendas. S.O.S in Nassau County. (Save our Schools in Nassau County). We have one of the BEST public education programs in the state. We DO NOT need to drive the teachers that make that possible out of Nassau County! Please get out and vote against Janet Adkins and STOP this from happening!

  9. I think all the respondents, of this Post “get it” Not only does Ms. Adkins and her handlers in Tallahassee, want to control curriculum in the Nassau County School System. It seems from the donations being accepted by her Campaign, from Charter School Companys around the State, her priorities would be to introduce Charter Schools into our Award winning System. I’m really at a loss, to understand the reasoning behind this? We don’t have failing schools, This isn’t a blighted urban School System. We are Blessed with one of the best Public Systems in the State. No more political gaming. Every one concerned about what’s been going on with a closed Republican Primary, because of what’s her name? from the Libertarian party, needs to be a registered republican, for their primary. I’m sure by now, a lot of good republicans understand who the qualified person to run our school system is. but a few more votes for Dr. Burns can’t hurt. Our children need your Vote.

  10. sandra barron says:

    This case draws a parallel to the 1925 case in which Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryant battled in the Scopps Trial. A 24 year old Biology teacher names Scopps had the audacity to teach Evolution of the Speces. Perhaps we should limit students to Mendel’s peas.

    • Kris Stadelman says:

      That was the SCOPES Monkey Trial.
      I am appalled that we are still fighting out evolution verses creationism in the 21st century classroom.
      When will we ever learn?

  11. John Bertsch says:

    I have said this before in the OBSERVER, politics and education do not mix. Want proof? Google: Kansas and Education.

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