Toni Morrison’s groundbreaking novel “The Bluest Eye” is headed back to Pinellas County high schools this week.
A committee of seven district media specialists spent nearly three hours April 18 reviewing the title, which the superintendent’s staff banned from shelves and courses in January after receiving a parent’s informal complaint about a rape scene in its pages. The challenge started over one Palm Harbor University High class, and quickly expanded to the full county.
“After discussion, the team recommended that the district make ‘The Bluest Eye’ by Toni Morrison available for self-selection in district library media centers for students in grades 9, 10, 11 and 12 with no parental permission requirements,” district chief strategy officer Jennifer Dull wrote in an email to school board members.
Teachers also will be able to use the book in classes, after first following district procedures for controversial materials, including receiving parental consent and offering alternatives. The decision was made after looking into factors such as age-appropriateness, educational value and state law, Dull wrote to board members.
School board members were divided on the outcome, which by policy does not come to them for consideration.
Board member Stephanie Meyer, who said she found the rape scene unsettling for herself, said she supported the move to allow teachers to use the book in class after consulting with parents. She did not feel the same about making the book freely available in high school libraries.
“This should be something all parents are required to give consent because of the upsetting nature of the content,” Meyer said. “I’ll definitely be bringing it up” with the board, she added.
Board member Caprice Edmond called the committee’s decision “great,” adding that the ban was an unfortunate event that occurred as the district tried to figure out how to implement state laws and rules regarding book selection and challenges.
“We’re seeing how this plays out, and it’s playing out well with the committees,” Edmond said.
Board member Eileen Long agreed, saying she was proud of the panel for supporting the book.
“High schoolers can handle it,” Long said, dismissing the complaints as misrepresenting the novel and its literary value. “It’s not about sex. It’s about how a child perceives white people” and her position in the world.
The committee met at Superintendent Kevin Hendrick’s request. After hearing public criticism about the ban, including from students, he said he wanted feedback on whether his team made the right decision.
Unlike the panel that reviewed the use of Disney’s “Ruby Bridges” movie at North Shore Elementary School, this committee did not meet in public. Although both materials were objected to by lone parents, the difference came in that “Ruby Bridges” faced a formal challenge that followed district policy, while “The Bluest Eye” did not.
The fate of Morrison’s book sat in limbo for three months, while the outcome of the movie was settled in about three weeks.
These disputes come against the backdrop of Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Legislature pushing to make it easier for parents and community residents to challenge books and other materials. State officials have targeted topics such as race, sex and gender, as well as social-emotional learning, diversity and equity, while also promulgating rules that make it easier to get items yanked off the shelves.
In some cases, districts have told teachers to restrict access to titles until they can be fully vetted. Anti-censorship groups have emerged to hold officials’ feet to the fire when it comes to following set procedures and respecting First Amendment rights.
Pinellas has attempted to thread the needle, heeding challenges about the appropriateness of materials and reacting to pushback.
But its responses created wariness within the Black community. Prominent civic leaders who raised concerns that the district did not well handle materials about Black history have pointedly told Hendrick he must do a better job of communicating challenges and seeking input.
Students who fought the ban said they were disappointed with the process but pleased with the committee’s decision.
“We talked to the principal, the school board, appointed district officials, and ... nothing much happened,” said Palm Harbor University High junior Eliza Lane, who organized a rally to seek the book’s return.
Lane said she and her classmates appreciated the media specialists’ effort. She said her class read some poems and short stories in place of “The Bluest Eye” while it was yanked from their syllabus.