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School Board cleared after review of children’s books

STORY BY RAY MCNULTY (Week of April 28, 2022)

A six-week investigation by the Sheriff’s Office Special Victims Unit has cleared the School Board and School Superintendent David Moore of any criminal charges related to the district’s process for reviewing library books a local parents’ group claimed were inappropriate for children and violated state law.

In a 74-page report released last week, Sheriff’s Sgt. Aaron Scranton concluded that he was “unable to establish that a crime had occurred,” adding that no further investigation was necessary, and the case was closed.

The three books at issue were “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” by Stephen Chbosky, “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” by Johnathan Foer, and “Perfect” by Ellen Hopkins.

A parents’ group headed by Jennifer Pippen claimed they were “three of the most sexually grotesque books” and that their contents violated state law that prohibits the sale or distribution of harmful material to minors.

Although Scranton reported that his investigation uncovered some content that could be legally defined as appealing to “prurient, shameful or morbid interests,” he found that the passages composed only a tiny percentage of each book.  The statute requires that content appealing to such interests must be the “predominate” subject matter of each book.

“Whether or not this material is appropriate for students of Indian River County,” Scranton wrote, “is an internal matter for the School Board and is best addressed through their processes.”

Sheriff Eric Flowers, though, felt it necessary to interject his personal opinion on the controversy.

In the April 19 letter in which he informed the School Board and superintendent that the “totality of the circumstances” didn’t “allow” his agency to make an arrest in the case, Flowers said the content of the three books named in the complaint wasn’t appropriate for young children, even if it didn’t rise to the level of a crime.

“Some of the content in these books is highly questionable, and I certainly would not want my child to have access to it,” the sheriff wrote. “I would recommend that the district continue to review their policy to allow for stricter oversight prior to books such as these being made available to children.”’

While four of the five School Board members said they weren’t surprised by the outcome of the investigation, three expressed shock and dismay that Flowers would feel a need to challenge their commitment to act in the students’ best interest and attempt to tell them how to run the district.

“The investigator did a great job,” Vice Chair Peggy Jones said. “He said there was no crime or violation of any state statute, and I thank him for stating the facts. That’s where I think Sheriff Flowers’ letter should’ve ended.”

Jones said she had read the entire report and has some “follow-up questions” for Flowers, who she noted failed to acknowledge in his letter the long hours and intense effort the district staff invested in reviewing the books challenged by the parents’ group.

Mara Schiff, who hasn’t yet announced whether she’ll run for re-election to her District 1 seat this year, said she would not presume to tell the sheriff how to do his job, “nor should he presume to tell us how to do ours.”

Brian Barefoot, who served as chairman during his first year on the board, said Flowers was entitled to his opinion but that it was “totally unnecessary” for him to share it in his letter.

In February, Flowers – who campaigned as a “family values” candidate in seeking the office of sheriff in 2020 – offered a public apology to his wife, the Sheriff’s Office and the community after his marital infidelity was exposed.

“Who is he to pass moral judgment?” Barefoot asked.

School Board Chair Teri Barenborg declined to comment on Flowers’ remarks, but she said most of the books that were challenged weren’t made available to younger children anyway.

Besides, she added, the board already has begun the process of creating a new committee in accordance with a new state law requiring parental involvement in the book-selection process.

The goal of the committee, Barenborg said, will be to establish a community standard regarding the age appropriateness of book content.

Jackie Rosario, the only School Board member to oppose the process the district adopted to review the books challenged by the parents’ group, said she was “disappointed” in the outcome of the investigation.

She noted the investigation’s findings were based on only the materials provided, and that the Sheriff’s Office did not review all 150-plus books on the list the parents’ group presented.

Barefoot, however, called the investigation a “complete waste of time, resources and taxpayer dollars.”

But he doesn’t expect the Sheriff’s Office’s findings to satisfy the parents’ group, which refused to settle for the district offering parents the option of restricting their children’s access to books in school libraries.

“We gave them a choice,” Barefoot said. “That wasn’t good enough, so they went to the sheriff, even though there was never any doubt in my mind that we were in compliance with the statute because of the process we followed.

“The sheriff found no violation, so here we go again,” he added. “We’ll follow the law and put a community standard in place, but they won’t like it. They won’t like anything unless all the books on their list are banned.

“Until there’s an election, these people will be out there complaining about something,” he concluded.