State education commissioner defends decision to restrict presidential inauguration poem

Manny Diaz Jr. backed a Miami Lakes school's decision to prevent elementary students from reading the poem recited at President Joe Biden's inauguration.

Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman speaks during the inauguration of then-President-elect Joe Biden on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., Jan. 20, 2021. 

Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman speaks during the inauguration of then-President-elect Joe Biden on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., Jan. 20, 2021.  Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

A top Florida education official is defending a Miami Lakes public school's decision to restrict elementary students from reading the poem recited at President Joe Biden’s inauguration.

Local officials pulled Amanda Gorman’s poem “The Hill We Climb” from the elementary grades section of the library at the Bob Graham Education Center after a parent claimed it was meant to “cause confusion and indoctrinate students.”

The decision — by a committee of teachers, a media specialist and the school’s principal — to restrict access to the book at the K-8th grade school was first reported by the Miami Herald.

In an interview with WLRN, Florida Education Commissioner Manny Diaz Jr. said the Miami Lakes school was following policy.

“The process worked,” Diaz said. “A parent has the right to make a complaint. But the process was put into effect and it worked where they deemed the proper placement of the books. And the students still have access to it at the right level. And no books were banned.”

In comments to WLRN and at a State Board of Education meeting in Hialeah on Wednesday, Diaz repeatedly argued that state officials are not banning books.

“We do not remove any books. We haven’t removed any books. We will not remove any books,” Diaz said.

Books challenges come in response to new state laws, policies

The censorship of books in public schools across the state are local decisions made by local officials, Diaz said. But the flurry of removals and reshelvings come in response to new state laws and state policies increasing scrutiny of instructional materials and empowering parents and residents to decide what is considered "appropriate."

In official guidance issued by the Florida Department of Education earlier this year, state officials warned librarians they could be charged with a crime if they provide books that are deemed “harmful to minors,” a reference to the state’s pornography laws.

According to a review by the free expression advocacy group PEN America, 175 books have been removed from shelves in Florida. Meanwhile, the American Library Association says the number of attempted book bans nationwide is the highest on record — and that the “vast majority” of titles being targeted are by or about LGBTQ people and people of color.

Among the books being targeted in Florida are “The Bluest Eye” by the Nobel Prize-winning chronicler of the Black American experience Toni Morrison, and children’s book “And Tango Makes Three," about two male penguins raising a chick together.

Poet says she’s 'gutted' by restriction against her writing

At the school in Miami Lakes, a total of four titles were moved from the elementary grades section to the middle grades section of the library, including “The ABCs of Black History” by Rio Cortez and “Cuban Kids” by George Ancona.

In a written statement, a spokesperson for Miami-Dade County Public Schools said “[n]o literature (i.e., books or poem) has been banned or removed.”

“It was determined at the school that “The Hill We Climb” is better suited for middle school students and it was shelved in the middle school section of the media center. The book remains available in the media center,” the statement reads.

Gorman, who is Black, has said she’s “gutted” by the decision, which she sees as an act of censorship.

“I wrote The Hill We Climb so that all young people could see themselves in a historical moment. Ever since, I’ve received countless letters and videos from children inspired by The Hill We Climb to write their own poems,” Gorman wrote. “Robbing children of the chance to find their voices in literature is a violation of their right to free thought and free speech.”

Earlier this month, PEN America and Penguin Random House — the country’s largest publisher — filed a federal lawsuit against the Escambia County School District, arguing restrictions on library books in the district are unconstitutional.

State board of ed moves forward with state list of challenged books

The Florida Board of Education, meantime, approved a new rule on Wednesday that will lead to the state annually publishing a list of books and instructional materials that have drawn public objections.

The rule will carry out part of a 2022 law (HB 1467) that increased scrutiny of school library books and instructional materials, amid a broader push by state officials to weed out content deemed "inappropriate."

State Board of Education chair Ben Gibson touted the new rule as allowing for a “standardized reporting mechanism” statewide.

“It does continue to provide transparency for our families. It will also give us a way to post that material, which is required,” Gibson said.

Beginning next month, school districts will have to report to the state by June 30 of each year which books were challenged and the rationale for the objections.

The Florida Department of Education will then publish a statewide list by Aug. 30 of each year.

The News Service of Florida contributed to this report. This story is published as part of a collaboration between City & State Florida and WLRN NewsKate Payne is WLRN's education reporter. Reach her at kpayne@wlrnnews.org

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