Eastside High School is in the Alachua County School District in Gainesville. | Fresh Take FloridaEastside High School is in the Alachua County School District in Gainesville. | Fresh Take Florida

Alachua school district returns LGBTQ book to shelves

Published on December 1, 2023 at 4:19 pm

A public school district in north-central Florida reversed itself and said Friday it was putting back into a high school’s library an LGBTQ book that had been challenged under Florida law over graphic references to masturbation and sex.

Alachua County Public Schools said it now deems the original complaint about the book invalid after concluding that the woman who challenged it was not legally a resident of the county, as required under the district’s procedures.

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The district in progressive Alachua County had removed its sole copy of Gender Queer: A Memoir, by Maia Kobabe, earlier this month from Eastside High because of sexually explicit content. District media specialist Patty Duval said Friday it was putting the book back.

It wasn’t clear whether or when someone else might immediately rechallenge the book since a committee at the high school had previously agreed the book violated Florida law. The chairman of the county Republican Party contacted the principal Friday and said he intends to formally challenge the book anew, the group said on its Facebook page.

The district also said it would not consider other book challenges by the woman, Lauren DePaola, 42, the founder and former leader of the county chapter of Moms for Liberty, the conservative Florida-based organization that has campaigned for more parental input over what schools teach and less classroom discussion about race, gender and sexuality. DePaola is still listed as an administrator for the Moms for Liberty chapter’s Facebook group.

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DePaola did not immediately return a text message or phone call. The co-founder of the national organization Moms For Liberty, Tina Chwazik Descovich of Indialantic, Florida, was not immediately available to discuss the issue.

In a letter to DePaola, school district staff attorney Susan M. Seigle cited news reporting two weeks ago by WUFT, the public media station operated out of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. That reporting showed DePaola and her husband had sold their home in Alachua County and purchased a home in neighboring Gilchrist County in April 2022, and that DePaola was a registered voter in Gilchrist County who voted in person there on Election Day on Nov. 8 last year. DePaola was still registered to vote in Gilchrist County this week, records showed.

“This raises doubt as to whether you have lived in Alachua County for a year prior to making your objections,” Seigle wrote. She added that DePaola does not have any children enrolled in public schools. Under the district’s rules, parents whose children attend schools here can file objections regardless of their residency.

The district emailed the letter to DePaola on Thursday. A copy was obtained Friday.

In the letter, the district recounted its own, earlier efforts to confirm DePaola’s residency in Alachua County, including a back-and-forth with her over the address where she was living. The district said after three requests, DePaola provided the address of a home she and her husband did not own. “We assumed you were renters, and permitted the objection to be determined,” Seigle wrote.

The district reversed its decision after reading WUFT’s reporting, the letter said. “The reporter from WUFT went farther,” Seigle wrote.

Gender Queer: A Memoir was published in 2019 and reflects on Kobabe’s journey discovering sexual and gender identities. The book includes references to masturbation and sex, including a scene about one of Kobabe’s fantasies with illustrations of two naked males engaging in sexual relations.

Under Florida law, it’s illegal for any classroom material to depict or describe sexual conduct, including sexual intercourse, abuse or masturbation.

The GOP county chairman, Tim Marden, had complained about news reporting on the issue, saying that DePaola had followed the district’s rules to challenge the book, which he called “filthy.” He said the news organization’s reporting on questions about DePaola’s residency was “more than the FBI into the Hunter Biden laptop.”

“This witch hunt was about DePaola and not about the real issue of the School Board promoting child pornography at Eastside High School,” Marden said in a new statement Friday. “It is shameful. And this is not the end of it. The School Board should have no problem removing the book as soon as a qualified resident has contested the book. That will be done by the end of the day. I can assure you of that.”

If a new challenge were made, the book would be removed — again — from the library until the district decided how to proceed.

Duval, the district’s media specialist, said prior to its removal, Gender Queer was available only at Eastside High. She said district officials will meet next week to discuss procedures to confirm a challenger’s residency, possibly to include requesting a driver’s license or utility bill.

“It’s important moving forward that we do verify to avoid situations like this,” she said.

This story was produced by Fresh Take Florida, a news service of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. The reporter can be reached at lauren.brensel@ufl.edu. You can donate to support the students here.