Book controversy: Residents pack Marion County School Board meeting to share concerns
They came by bus, car, truck. Some wore stickers: "PARENTS AGAINST PORNOGRAPHY."
Ocala resident David Smith was one of nearly 50 people who rode a bus to the Marion County School Board meeting, held Tuesday evening at the Marion Technical Institute. Smith said the message is simple: Stop allowing books that promote pornography to be in schools. Smith hopes the school board members will heed his voice.
"Why make it accessible to the public? It makes no sense," Smith said.
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The meeting agenda didn't include a discussion of books in schools, and whether some age-inappropriate books are on the shelves. But hundreds of people packed the MTI auditorium, and more than three dozen speakers addressed the issue during the meeting's public comment section.
Some people were there as part of an organized effort, pushed on social media, to voice concerns about what books are being allowed in schools. Others came out to support the school district's handling of the matter and to support the concepts of free speech and students' access to age-appropriate educational materials.
Before the speakers began, Superintendent of Schools Diane Gullett said the district is complying with state laws and with the local board policy. Gullett said school librarians, media specialists and others involved in the selection of school library materials must complete online training annually. That has been accomplished.
She added that the district has a process in place for parents and community members to challenge any book that might be objectionable. Any such challenge triggers a review. Details about the process can be found on the district website.
'An assault on the public's right to read'
The superintendent's introductory comments didn't stop the approximately 600 men, women and children who attended the meeting from applauding or booing as members of the public spoke.
Sue Preston said that "book banning is quite simply an assault on the public's right to read." She said throughout history, books have been banned for one reason or another. She said some of the most controversial books in history are now regarded as classics.
On the other hand, Joe Carpenter said board members have failed "to get the job done" in the last two years to keep offensive books off school library shelves. Carpenter said social media platforms have checks and balances to stop or prevent certain content from making it to the public. He asked board members, "Where are our priorities?"
Some speakers gave examples of books they say are extremely graphic and urged school officials to get them off local shelves. They argued that offering those books does not benefit children, and maybe media specialists should be replaced.
"School is for education," said Lucy Sullivan, who's in favor of removing books from school libraries that are not appropriate for children.
The Rev. Jack Martin from Spring Hill said some of the offensive books have affected children. He told school officials they won't be banning books, just banning pornography. He challenged them "to do the right thing."
Sarah Clifton had a different view. She believes the issue is noting more than politics, political theater and hysteria. She said she doesn't believe that school book shelves are inundated with pornography.
Charles Dodge said school officials should focus on academics, and this topic should not be ignored.
No action taken
Vickie Treulieb and her two children, ages 9 and 10, who attend an Ocala elementary school, took turns disagreeing with speakers who believe there are too many bad books in school libraries.
Treulieb said all voices and students need to be heard. She thinks if they're not represented, then it won't be good for society.
School Board Chairwoman Allison Campbell told the audience several times to refrain from clapping or booing speakers. Members of the audience eventually opted for silent gestures, such as waving their hands in the air.
Later in the meeting, when board members made their comments, they acknowledged residents' right to be heard and expressed appreciation for the level of engagement.
But they also said they were confident the school district had an appropriate book review system in place, and they cautioned against politicizing this matter.
"Tonight we witnessed freedom of speech in all its glory, and all its ugliness, as well," board member Eric Cummings said.
He noted that Marion County public schools have more than 570,000 books on their shelves. Several years ago the board began a process on how to address books that might be objectionable.
"That process has been working," Cummings said, adding that the district also is in compliance with the new state law that Gullett outlined during her comments.
He also noted that no one on the school board is promoting or endorsing pornography for children.
Jim Ross contributed to this report. Contact Austin L. Miller at firstname.lastname@example.org or @almillerosb
This article originally appeared on Ocala Star-Banner: School Board hears from dozens of residents concerned about books