TAMPA, Fla. — The rights of students and what happens in their classrooms became a battle for the history books this school year in Florida.
Amid mask mandates and the critically-dubbed “Don’t Say Gay” bill, school books also fueled some of the most passionate fights.
In data we obtained from dozens of districts who responded to our requests, Florida school districts received — in total — approximately 300 formal library book challenges this past school year.
Most of the challenges accused the books in question of being too sexually explicit for students.
In one, the complainant stated a book addressing LGBTQ issues found in a fifth-grade homeroom classroom promoted, “religious level social justice propaganda.”
In another, the book aimed to “ultimately push homosexuality,” Dale Galiano described in her challenge to the St. Lucie County school district back in January.
“I don’t think that an 8-year-old needs to know about sodomy, rape and incest,” Galiano said.
Of the 17 book challenges submitted to St. Lucie County schools last year, Galiano was behind every one of them, records show.
“I’m a widow,” the 69-year-old retiree said. “Why I care is because these kids are my future, and it’s the future of this country.”
Galiano admitted she had not read every page of the 17 books she challenged.
“I’ve read them in partial,” she said adding she reviewed the challenged books with three of her friends.
While it’s been widely reported that parents — many from the conservative group Moms for Liberty — made dozens of formal challenges to districts, Galiano is among some of the prolific challengers who filed complaints about books available in school without having any children of her own enrolled in one.
“I feel that the Lord needs to have his children taken care of,” Galiano said. “I got picked because I took it seriously.”
According to Galiano, she also “got picked” after attending a meeting hosted by the Florida Citizens Alliance, a conservative nonprofit that believes America’s public education system is failing.
On its website, the group claims Florida children “are being indoctrinated in a school system that undermines their individual rights and destroys the nation’s founding principles and family values.”
Keith Flaugh is a co-founder. He and his wife he never had any children.
Flaugh, who admits he hasn’t read all the books his group has challenged, said he started questioning the age-appropriateness of some novels available at school four years ago. He is described as a US Army veteran who worked at IBM for nearly 30 years in marketing and finance.
When the I-Team asked Flaugh if he has any special expertise that makes him qualified to make decisions over books available to students in school libraries, he replied, “I view myself as a constitutional person.”
His group has been another prolific book challenger in Florida.
Records show Florida Citizens Alliance has filed formal complaints in at least a dozen districts throughout the state, including all 16 challenges submitted to the Polk County School District earlier this year.
The group used a member form template also submitted to other county districts.
“We’re accused of wanting to ban books,” Flaugh said. “My typical response to that is we’re not about banning anything, we’re about providing a safe environment for our kids.”
Despite all of the school book challenges this year, just a fraction resulted in districts permanently removing books from school libraries.
Still, challengers had an impact on more school districts are now adjusting library policies to give parents control over what their kids can and can’t check out.
In Indian River County, which received the most book challenges of any Florida district, school leaders let parents choose the level of books their children could access. However, according to a district spokesperson, few parents took advantage of the option.
Other districts have apps which let parents see what their child checks out from the school library while some districts including the Sarasota, Polk and Orange County school districts are reviewing their library polices for students this summer.
As for the challengers we spoke with, they don’t have any plans to back down.
“We believe that we’re waking up parents and giving them some tools to get a better education for their children,” Flaugh said.
“I’m here. I’m staying,” Galiano said.
Starting in July, a new Florida law takes effect which will make it easier for people to challenge books available at school.
Critics have expressed their concern for the law will result in more challenges next year or leave districts unwilling to make some books available to students in the first place.