Teachers, parents, authors, and students navigate schools’ growing restrictions

Florida schools are at the front and center of controversy following contentious legislation. Gov. Ron DeSantis has signed a series of sweeping bills into laws that target the state’s public education system. Several popular book titles have been removed from school libraries and teachers have to think twice about what topics they can cover in class. 

​The challenges are brought by the Parental Rights in Education law, dubbed by critics the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. The law signed in 2022 restricts teachers from holding classroom instruction about sexual orientation or gender identity in kindergarten through third grade. The law was later expanded in 2023 under the Education Act to include students up to eight grade. It wasn’t until March where a settlement now allows students and teachers to speak freely about the sexual orientation and gender identity in the classroom as long as it is not part of the instruction.

“I happen to be a real believer that words and ideas can never harm you,” said Mitchell Kaplan, founder of a bookstore called Books & Books in Coral Gables.

Kaplan is a former teacher at Miami Southridge Senior High School who has met authors impacted by the legislation. The leading cause of the book banning is the argument of sexually explicit content within school library materials. Sexually explicit does not only pertain to pornographic material or material depicting sexual acts, but also talks of sexuality and gender identity.  Kaplan says, “I don’t believe that any books that’s selected by a librarian in public schools is pornographic, just by definition. It may be graphic, it could be sexually graphic or violently graphic, but I don’t think it falls under the definition of pornographic, which is a very specific definition.” 

Florida recorded 1,406 instances of book banning in 33 school districts from July 2022 to June 2023, according to PEN America, a non-profit organization made up of writers, editors, and publishers. Some of the books removed that school year by the State Department of Education contain LGBTQ+ themes or characters. In Broward County, the district removed “A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo” by Jill Twiss, “It’s Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex and Sexual Health” by Robie Harris & Michael Emberley, and “Let’s Talk About It” by Erika Moen & Matthew Nolan.   

Kaplan adds, “Parents should not have the right to restrict what my kids can read, or what other kids can read.” 

A nationwide organization called Moms For Liberty is working to defend what it defiones as parental rights. The Broward County Chapter was founded by former school board members Tiffany Justice and Tina Descovich during the pandemic in 2021. Vice Chairwoman Sabrina Artiles states that Moms for Liberty is “a national organization, each county has the opportunity to start their own chapter. So, here in Broward we focus on many different issues that are happening here whether that be with the school board, whether than be with things that are going on on school campuses. Our main goal is to educate, empower, and inform parents to defend their parental rights in education in all levels of government.   

​In Miami-Dade County, an organization called Moms for Libros was formed in response to Moms for Liberty. While no books have been removed in the district according to the State Department of Education, the organization composed of a group of parents is fighting what they term the censorship of books in public schools. Lissette Fernandez, co-founder of Moms for Libros, spreads information on social media, including school board and book ban updates, community outreach, and additional resources to raise awareness to the issues surrounding public education and goes in front of the school board to advocate for accessible learning for stronger incentives. 

​”Specifically, what I do for Moms for Libros is we research what is going on legislatively across the state, as well as locally with our school boards that would impact public education and the ability for children to access library materials in public education,” said Fernandez. “It’s a lot of advocating for the kids, as well as educating the public.”  

​Fernandez works closely with the United Teachers of Dade, the state’s largest public employee union, to fight for justice in public education.  Karla Hernandez-Mats, president of the union, fights to make communities stronger through education. “They’re saying it’s pornographic material, the reality is that the books they’re banning do not have this material,” Hernandez-Mats said.  “They are books that are black and brown authors, black or brown characters, characters that are part of the LGBTQ+. So they’re using that as an excuse, as a scapegoat to really create environments and communities where they’re limiting access to resources.”

Hernandez-Mats led a protest in March in Brickell to call for public education reform. Educators, students, and activists marched from the Miami Circle to the Torch of Friendship where organizers held a rally with special speakers from organizations fighting for the same cause. 

Oscar Alvarez, president of the Young Democratic Socialists of America (YDSA) at Florida International University, is on a mission to fight on the academic front. The 20-year-old activist says his mission is to create a “mass movement of working class and oppressed people against capitalism which we believe is the fundamental root of the issues, the disparities, the inequalities, and the exploitation that we face within society — serve the majority and the needs of people.”

The concerns over censorship in schools transcend to the Gen Z generation. Iris Mogul, a junior at the Academy for Advanced Academics, partners with Books and Books to host the “Banned Books Club.” They meet every last Thursday of the month to talk about the recent fallouts the law is having on schools.

Mogul believes the book ban is “trying to silence voices of marginalized people and stop people from communicating and sharing ideas and thoughts.” She adds, “the more people who care, the better, and I mean we can just all put our minds together and do great things.” 

Underneath the controversy of the legislation is the power in having everyone’s voices heard. Attending school board meetings and joining organizations may help raise awareness of the issues surrounding public school education. Gov. DeSantis hopes to increase parental rights in Florida after signing House Bill 1285 on April 16; this allows parents to object at will to library materials, but non-parent individuals are limited to one book objection per month.

Isabel Marichal is a bilingual journalist at Florida International University who is passionate about the entertainment industry. Marichal studied abroad in Spain where she collaborated with Proemaid, a non-profit organization, as a social media manager to reconstruct their social media platforms and website. She is also a co-hosts on a podcast called Full Time Daughter. The podcast focuses on the journey of being in your 20s in Miami and the transitional period from childhood to womanhood.

Marichal will graduate from the Lee Caplin School of Journalism & Media with a bachelor’s degree in digital TV and multimedia production in 2024.

Bryana Sorto is a junior at Florida International University who aspires to pursue a career in the media and film industry. Sorto currently works as an audiovisual production assistant at FIU where she sets up technical equipment for events. Sorto is also a producer for Caplin News, a student-run newscast, where she has honed critical editing and writing skills. Sorto will graduate from the Lee Caplin School of Journalism & Media  with a bachelor's degree in multimedia production in Spring 2025.