This story is part of How we know what we know: An investigative series.
Navia Gomez was asked to remove a book titled “All Are Welcome” by Alexandra Penfold, which has themes of diversity and inclusion, from the Scholastic Book Fair earlier this year after a parent raised concern over the depiction of a disabled character holding a pride flag.
To comply with Florida’s new laws restricting access to certain books, Gomez, working as a media specialist at Dante B. Fascell Elementary in Kendall West, did so. But she wasn’t happy about it.
“This happens because we’re allowing it,” she said. “It’s being given permission. The parent admitted to having not read the book.”
In her role as media specialist, Gomez works in the school library helping to maintain materials and resources, including books, films, photographs and software programs. She also checks out books to students across all grade levels and assists in student research projects, as well as plans activities to promote literacy.
Florida leads the nation in what critics call “book bans,” according to one advocacy group, and the repercussions can be felt throughout school libraries and classrooms alike, impacting not only students, but educators who struggle to showcase inclusivity and foster a welcoming environment for everyone.
Gomez, 64, an avid reader from a young age, is on the front lines of the battle in the new school year. She credits her awareness of world issues and events to her grandfather, as she reminisces about the many days she spent reading newspapers on his lap. He always used to tell her:
“You need to know what’s going on in the world,” her grandfather often told her.
With the restrictions put in place by the GOP-controlled state Legislature and Gov. Ron DeSantis, she said, “Children will lose their ability to make judgment calls for themselves.”
“It’s important that we allow kids the right to be interested in what they want to read without having to feel bad about it, especially if they’re not the strongest readers,” said Gomez.
The situation in schools has been made even more challenging by the “Parental Rights in Education” law, which critics call the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which prohibits any discussion in classrooms about sexuality and gender identity from kindergarten through third grade. The bill was expanded this year to include the restriction of instruction in these topics through the eighth grade.
The measure empowers parents and community members to challenge any reading material in schools. The books must be removed within a five-day period pending further investigation.
As a former third and fourth grade teacher, Gomez wrestled with finding the proper balance between promoting the freedom to read, while still complying with the requirements of the laws.
“Can I have this book in my class? Is it too graphic?” she said. “Books like the “Twilight” series which may be more appropriate for young adults. I even have to look into “Captain Underpants” for its themes even though the children love it. I think we need to use common sense a lot. I believe we need to change the narrative on book banning a little bit.”
She added, “Yes, Florida has gotten excessive, but for me it’s not so much book banning than being careful about what’s appropriate for kids to be reading at a certain age.”
Gomez urged parents “to read what their children are reading. If [they’re] not sure about it, read to make a better judgment about whether or not it’s appropriate for [your] child to be reading.”
A parent herself, Gomez recounted how her son in grade school struggled with grades, which she attributed to him not finding a book to connect with. The “A Series of Unfortunate Events” books were what turned that around for him in the third grade. Gomez credits the series for expanding his imagination and comprehension skills.
Shirley Pico, parent of a former Dante B. Fascell student and a school teacher, said it is “really sad to see the limits placed on the types of books that are allowed to be read.
“As a parent, I want my child to be able to see themselves represented in the books that they read,” she added. “I think shielding them from that only causes harm. Seeing examples of all kinds teaches them about empathy when they inevitably grow up and are faced with situations of their own.”
Another parent, Tracy Monacelli, who has a child in fourth grade, said that she finds herself “spending more time at public libraries checking out books that may not be on teacher’s shelves” in order to showcase different viewpoints and lifestyles to her daughter.
Not all teachers are on the same page, however.
“Children should not be exposed to sexual material in books, magazines, skits or shows,” said Lisa Alvarez, second and third grade reading teacher at Dante B. Fascell.
“Minors should be able to read a variety of things, discuss, analyze, and critique material, but children are growing and maturing at different rates physically, emotionally, and spiritually,” she added. “The younger a child, the more impressionable they are.”
But Gomez, passionate about inspiring young minds to read, imagine and dream, said she feels that the laws are taking away students’ basic rights to become knowledgeable about their world.
“If history is truth, the truth will always come out,” she said. “It’s always gonna be revealed and you’re always gonna have people that want to know the truth. You have to use discretion and your judgment but you also don’t want to deny history, and I feel like that’s what we’re doing in Florida.”