Submitted by Anne H. Oman
March 2, 2016 9:45 a.m.
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.”
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.
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.