State orders Orange schools to say who bought ‘Gender Queer’

A state investigator who looks into teacher misconduct demanded to know who in Orange County Public Schools authorized the purchase of the book “Gender Queer,” a controversial memoir the district pulled from several high school libraries in late October, according to emails between the employee and the school district.

“This office is trying to find out who approved the book,” wrote Ian Dohme, a Florida Department of Education employee, in an email to an OCPS administrator on April 13.

Dohme’s request was alarming because he works for the department’s Office of Professional Practices, said Stephana Ferrell, an Orange County mother and co-founder of the Florida Freedom to Read Project, which uncovered the email.

Professional practices investigates allegations of teacher misconduct and pursues disciplinary action against educators found guilty.

“That’s a huge threat,” Ferrell said.

Dohme, who wrote in another email that he was investigating how the book landed in OCPS high schools, was eventually sent purchase orders issued by four high schools that bought the book, and at least one document that included a high school media specialist’s name, according to the emails.

The emails were obtained through a public records request by the Florida Freedom to Read Project, a parent group opposed to book bans, censorship and the removal of “Gender Queer” from school libraries. It shared them with the Orlando Sentinel.

Florida Republican leaders passed laws this spring that target what is taught in schools and provide more scrutiny of what is stacked on school library shelves. Ferrell, a critic of all the legislation, read the emails as more of the same.

“This is just another way to scare people to fall in line with new policies,” she said.

Karen Castor Dentel, a member of the Orange County School Board and a former county teacher, said she did not know about the state’s actions but, when told of the emails, said they were inappropriate and unfair.

“You don’t bring the weight of the state down to an individual teacher who only brought a book,” Castor Dentel said.

A comic-book style memoir, “Gender Queer” shares the author’s experience coming out as nonbinary. The book has won awards and been praised as a good resource for teenagers struggling with their own gender identity, but it also has been fiercely criticized for some graphic illustrations of sex acts.

Members of the conservative group Moms for Liberty have led the charge against “Gender Queer,” in Orange and across the state, and Gov. Ron DeSantis cited the book, calling it “incredibly disturbing,” when he signed a new law in March that increases scrutiny of school and classroom libraries.

Orange administrators decided in late October to remove “Gender Queer” from three high schools that had it, saying that after a review they concluded it was too graphic and not appropriate for younger teenagers. The recent emails suggest a fourth high school also bought the book.

But Castor Dentel said the media specialists — they are teachers with specialized training to manage school libraries — who authorized the book’s purchase “didn’t do anything wrong.” They bought a book they thought would be helpful to some students on their campuses, which is their job, she added.

If the state has issues with that, it should “lay the burden at the feet of the district in general,” not an individual employee, Castor Dentel said.

The Florida Department of Education did not respond Thursday to questions about the actions of its investigator, if any OCPS employees faced state sanctions or whether similar information had been sought from other districts that have or had “Gender Queer” on their shelves.

The Brevard and Osceola county school districts also removed the book from their libraries during the past school year.

Lorena Arias, a spokesperson for Orange schools, declined to answer any questions about the education department’s requests, saying the Tallahassee agency would need to answer those.

According to the emails, Dohme, a director for professional practices, emailed district administrators in February asking for the names of those who approved the book, the district’s policies for vetting potential library books and if “Gender Queer” would face an official review.

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He had called the district in early November — right after OCPS made news for removing the book — to ask officials about “Gender Queer” and its status, though it is not clear from the emails specifically what he wanted.

On Feb. 15, he emailed with his request for names and followed up in April. In between, district officials had told him they were working on getting him the purchase orders.

“Will there be any word on who initially approved the book in any or all of the the locations?” Dohme wrote on April 13 to an OCPS administrator.

“Currently, our office is investigating the inclusion of a book, Gender Queer, into 3 high school libraries,” he wrote April 15 in an email to the OCPS procurement department marked “Sensitivity: Confidential.” He went on: “This office is trying to find out who approved the book.”

The next day, Maurice Draggon, senior director of digital learning at OCPS, emailed that “my team has been working to try and get the invoices for the orders for you.” Two days later, Draggon attached six orders for the book put in by four OCPS high schools — Boone, Dr. Phillips, Lake Buena Vista and West Orange, the emails showed.

The documents obtained by the reading project also included a “payment form” from Barnes & Noble Booksellers showing West Orange High School’s purchase of the book for $14.39 and listed the school media specialists’ name. She could not be reached for comment.

lpostal@orlandosentinel.com

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