Florida teacher fired over viral video Ron DeSantis branded ‘fake narrative’

Teachers and librarians have shared images of empty bookshelves following a directive from Duval County Public Schools

Richard Hall,Megan Sheets
Monday 20 February 2023 21:23 GMT
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A Florida teacher has been fired after a video he filmed of empty school library shelves went viral amid outrage over Gov Ron DeSantis’ alleged efforts to ban books.

Brian Covey, a parent and substitute teacher at Mandarin Middle School, filmed the video in a bid to show the consequences of Florida’s new “curriculum transparency law”. It has since racked up more than 13 million views.

Mr Covey’s firing came days after Mr DeSantis directly condemned the video as a “fake narrative” as he denied that books have been removed from school shelves, despite evidence from teachers and librarians revealing that they have.

On Tuesday, the governor was asked by a reporter in Duval County about the district ordering schools to remove all books from shelves so that they can undergo a “vetting” process to ensure they comply with the law, which was passed in Florida last year.

“Actually that video, that was a fake narrative,” the governor said in reference to Mr Covey’s video.

“This is trying to create some narrative, as if that... They hadn’t even put the books out yet to begin with. So, there’s no need for all of that stuff. What they’re trying to do is they are trying to act like somehow, you know, we don’t want books,” the governor said at a press conference.

Duval County Public Schools addressed Mr Covey’s termination in a statement to First Coast News on Wednesday. It confirmed that ESS, the organisation which contracts with the district to hire substitute teachers, had “parted ways” with Mr Covey.

“In discussion between the district and ESS regarding this individual’s misrepresentation of the books available to students in the school’s library and the disruption this misrepresentation has caused, it was determined that he had violated social media and cell phone policies of his employer. Therefore, ESS determined these policy violations made it necessary to part ways with this individual,” the statement read.

The Independent has previously reported that school teachers and librarians in Duval County, where Mr DeSantis was visiting to speak about judicial reform, had been ordered by the school district to remove non-curriculum books from their shelves.

Many of them took to social media to share images of empty bookshelves.

The vetting was ordered by the district in response to a “curriculum transparency” law passed by Mr DeSantis last year. That law requires schools to ensure their book selections are “free of pornography and prohibited materials harmful to minors, suited to student needs, and appropriate for the grade level and age group.”

The law has sown confusion in some schools, and the task of interpreting the guidelines has been left to “media specialists,” or librarians.

Seeking to ensure compliance with the new rules, Duval County School District sent a memo to teachers last month instructing them to “temporarily store books until they are reviewed.” The memo also notified teachers that “plays and poems” performed in class “will also need to be aligned to state statute language.”

The aim of the law, according to Mr DeSantis’s office, is “to ensure that parents have knowledge of what is being offered to their children in the classroom.” School districts are now rushing to meet those guidelines.

But teachers and free expression advocacy groups, like PEN America, have said the “vague laws, harsh penalties and confusing directives” have left schools operating under a “cloud of fear” that is harming students’ ability to learn.

One librarian told The Independent that the library in the school where she worked had been closed to students while the vetting took place.

“The books are sitting out on tables, they’re being boxed up and discarded,” Keri Clark said. “It’s just it’s a really sad sight. A lot of the kids keep looking through the window and it’s just it’s awful that I can’t let them come in and get books.”

Books that were removed from school libraries to be vetted by librarians in order to comply with Florida censorship laws.

Mr DeSantis said at his press conference on Tuesday that the law is aimed at stopping pornography from reaching children, but among the titles that have been removed and banned in the course of the vetting in Duval County are Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, The Stranger by Albert Camus, Revolting Rhymes by Roald Dahl, and a skateboarding magazine called Thrasher.

The reasons for these bans, noted in a document viewed by The Independent, are brief and vague. They include descriptions like “racial profile” [sic], "Lewd/Offensive” and “Inapp. Behavior.”

At the press conference on Tuesday, Mr DeSantis said it was not the state’s intention to ban books.

“If there’s anything that any of these school, superintendents say are quote banned, produce that and our Department of Education will absolutely take a look at that, and I can guarantee you that unless it something that 99 percent of the people realise its wrong, chances are it’s not any type of issue,” he said.

The Florida Department of Education did not respond to a request for comment from The Independent.

Bryan Griffin, press secretary for Mr DeSantis, said in a statement on Tuesday that the removal of books from school shelves was not ordered by the state.

“There has been no state instruction to empty libraries or cover up classroom books. However, we ARE taking a stand against pornography and sexual material in the classroom,” he said in the statement.

In a separate response to a request for comment from The Independent, he added that “the intent is not to empty libraries but ensure pornography is not provided in classrooms.”

Last month, teacher Andrea Phillips told The Independent she had removed all the books from the shelves in her classroom in response to Duval County’s vetting process.

“The autonomy that has been stolen from me. I’m a certified teacher, I’ve been doing this for more than a decade. I’ve done training after training. I’ve worked with kids for years. I know what I’m doing,” she said.

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