Book ban efforts by conservative parents take aim at library apps

She said book-ban campaigns that started with criticizing school board members and librarians have now turned their attention to the tech startups that run the apps, which had existed for years without drawing much controversy.

“It’s not enough to take a book off the shelf,” she said. “Now they want to filter electronic materials that have made it possible for so many people to have access to literature and information they’ve never been able to access before.”

Not just tech

Kimberly Hough, a parent of two children in Brevard Public Schools, said her 9-year-old noticed immediately when the Epic app disappeared a few weeks ago because its collection had become so useful during the pandemic.

“They could look up books by genre, what their interests are, fiction, nonfiction, so it really is an online library for kids to find books they want to read,” she said. She said her daughter would read “everything available” about animals.

Russell Bruhn, a spokesperson for Brevard Public Schools, said the district removed Epic because of a new Florida law that requires book-by-book reviews of online libraries. According to the law, signed by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, “each book made available to students” through a school library must be “selected by a school district employee.” Epic says its online libraries are curated by employees to make sure they’re age-appropriate.

Bruhn said that no parents complained about the app and that no specific books had concerned school officials but that officials decided the collection needed review.

“We did not receive any complaints about Epic,” Bruhn said, but he acknowledged “it had never been fully vetted or approved by the school system.”

He said he didn’t know how many of the system’s 70,000 students previously had free access, and he didn’t know whether access would eventually be restored.

Bruhn said it would be incorrect to see the removal as part of a censorship campaign.

“We’re not banning books in Brevard County,” he said. “We want to have a consistent review of educational materials.”

Hough, the vice president of Families for Safe Schools, a local group formed last year to counter conservative parents, is running for a seat on the school board because of disagreements with its direction. She said she believes the state mandate and another new law prohibiting classroom discussion of gender identity were creating a climate of fear.

“Our laws now have made everyone that a parent is going to sue the school district over what they don’t really know if they’re allowed to have or not have, because the laws are so vague,” she said.

Critics of the e-reader apps have also been taken aback by how swiftly schools can take down entire collections.

“Within 24 hours, they shut it down,” Trisha Lucente, the mother of the kindergartner in Williamson County, Tennessee, said in a recent interview on a conservative YouTube show. Lucente is the president of Parents Choice Tennessee, a conservative group.

“That was a pretty drastic response,” she said, adding that she was used to school bureaucracy’s moving more slowly. The Epic app is now back online at the county schools, but parents can request to have it removed from devices for their children.

In a phone interview, Lucente said she believes schools should steer clear of subjects such as sexuality and religion. “Kids should never have anything at their fingertips to prompt those questions,” she said.

The conflicts reflect how some school districts and parents are only now catching up to the amount of technology kids use every day and how it changes their lives. US students in kindergarten through 12th grade used an average of 74 different tech products each during the first half of this school year, according to LearnPlatform, a North Carolina company that advises schools and ed tech companies.

“Tech is not just tech,” Rod Berger, a former school administrator who’s now a strategist in the education technology industry. He lives in Williamson County and spoke against the Epic ban there.