Florida schools directed to cover or remove classroom books that are not vetted

The state said its "Stop WOKE" act applies to books displayed in classrooms.

February 6, 2023, 2:08 PM

At least one Florida school is covering up or removing books in their classrooms that have not been approved under a law restricting instruction and books on race and diversity and making it a felony for teachers to share pornographic material to students.

A Manatee County, Florida, directive is instructing its schools to "remove or cover all materials that have not been vetted" in classrooms, according to a copy of the guidance obtained by ABC News.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in April signed the "Stop WOKE" act, which restricts lessons and training on race and diversity in schools and in the workplace, particularly anything that discusses privilege or oppression based on race, or whether someone "bears personal responsibility for and must feel guilt, anguish, or other forms of psychological distress" due to U.S. racial history. WOKE in the bill stands for "Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees."

A judge in November temporarily blocked the law from restricting race-related curriculum and conversation in colleges and universities, which is still being battled out in the courts.

Michael Barber, communications director of Manatee County schools, told ABC News on Friday that teachers could be charged with a third-degree felony if they share a book that's considered pornographic or obscene under Florida law. But many teachers misinterpret the law as meaning they could be indicted for simply sharing any unvetted material, he said.

Manatee County acted under an abundance of caution when they asked teachers to cover all their books, which could have been an overreaction, according to Barber. The county official explained that teachers have an online link to a list of books that have been approved for their grades and if they make sure their class collections are on the list then they would be fine.

Barber admits that this is a tough time as teachers are preparing their students for national state accountability tests and don't have much time to vet their reading material. Manatee County schools are planning to ask volunteers to help them with the vetting process, he said.

"Each school district is tasked with ensuring that the materials offered in school libraries and classrooms offer educational value and comply with Florida law," DeSantis' press secretary Bryan Griffin tweeted on Tuesday.

But Don Falls, a history teacher at Manatee High School in Florida, says the new law limits the kind of information that can be given to students.

Don Falls a teacher at Manatee High School in Florida shared this photo of books covered.
Courtesy Don Falls

According to Falls, if a student feels uncomfortable about the content that is being presented, then that would be a violation of the law by the teacher.

"Last week, I was doing a couple of lessons on civil rights, looking at the Albany movement, Birmingham in 1963. And, of course, some of those images of those periods can be quite upsetting: dogs turned on little girls, fire hoses," Falls said in an interview on ABC News Live Prime. "I'm showing them some of these images, in the back of my mind, I was saying, 'Well, if a student here gets upset about these, have I violated the law?' But the information to me is too important to deny students. And so I'm still going to continue to do it."

Florida Education Commissioner Manny Diaz Jr. wrote in a tweet last month, "A teacher or any adult faces a felony if they knowingly distribute egregious materials such as images which depict sexual conduct, sexual battery, bestiality or sadomasochistic abuse. Who could be against that?"

Falls believes that rule is unnecessary because schools were already operating under those standards.

"We have a set of ethical guidelines that we agree to. State guidelines that go along with our contract that would prohibit any of that. And those have always been there in all my years of teaching," Falls said. "So, this attempt to try to convince the public that there is this kind of cabal of woke people that are out there distributing this stuff is just ridiculous because that just doesn't happen."

Earlier this week, the College Board released an updated version of the AP African American course framework after the Florida Department of Education rejected the course on Jan. 12.

Falls compared the law to McCarthyism, the controversial campaign by Sen. Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s to repress and persecute communists in the U.S. government.

"How ridiculous this was that in 2023 that we are covering books, that we are looking to ban books, that we are at a point that sounds like McCarthyism in our society," Falls said. "I guess it's frustrating as a long-time educator. I have been in the classroom for 38 years and I've never seen anything like this where this kind of widespread attempt to silence students, silence teachers to control the information in the classroom."

DeSantis' press secretary, Bryan Griffin, on Friday directed ABC News to a tweet he wrote in response to a video shared online that seemed to show empty bookshelves in a Florida library.

"This is the latest lie from the crowd who believes they should be able to subject children to their preferred political agenda in public schools without any accountability to parents or the taxpayer," Griffin wrote.

ABC News' Sabina Ghebremedhin and Brianti Downing contributed to this story.

Editor's Note: This story has been updated to reflect the directive was only issued for Manatee County, and was not a state directive.