Book banning? Parent email prompts Utah district to pull these titles from high school libraries

Removal appears to violate district’s own policies

Copies of at least nine book titles have been removed from libraries at four high schools in the Canyons School District — all in response to an email from a parent who expressed concerns about the titles she said she learned about through social media videos.

The removal appears to violate the district's own policies for what happens when someone has concerns about books owned by a school library.

The policy, which was rewritten and approved by the Canyons Board of Education in May of 2020 says: "The material in question will remain in use during the challenge process." It also says that challenges can only be made by current students, parents who have children at the school in question or administrators, and the policy details how those challenges shall be made and what the process for reviewing questionable materials is.

District spokesman Jeff Haney said the policy doesn't apply to this situation, and says the district decided to pull the books off the shelves of the school libraries while district officials review what they now feel is an issue with the policy itself — the fact that challenges to library materials cannot come from outside a school community, nor can they come from the superintendent's office or school board members.

But Haney said the district isn't facing any official challenge because the email complaint isn't the type of challenge contemplated by current district policies. That's because the woman who complained is challenging the books from all school libraries in the district instead of just from a library where her child attends school, he said.

"We do not have a challenge to any book," Haney said. "If we would have had a challenge from a patron/employee with standing according to the policy, then the policy outlines how the district would proceed."

He added, "But just because we don't have an official challenge to a book doesn't mean we can't review titles for content."

The books that school officials pulled from the shelves of Alta, Brighton, Jordan and Corner Canyon high schools are the same books listed in the email from a Sandy woman who described herself a "mother in the Canyons School District."

Corner Canyon High School in Draper.
Corner Canyon High School in Draper. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

"I have come across many videos on social media about sexually explicit books in our Utah school libraries and in school libraries around the country," Megan wrote in an email obtained through a public records request. "I am asking that you will spend the time to review the videos below for inappropriate material. There are many more but it is exhausting mentally, watching and reviewing these books' content."

But the woman, who asked that only her first name be used, said she never asked for the books to be pulled from the shelves.

"I am not the type of person who wants to get into confrontation," said Megan, who has children in elementary and middle schools in the Canyons District but no child in high school. "I emailed who I thought had the authority to address my concerns. ... I wanted them to review the content in those videos and reply to me and tell me if it's being looked at on a state level."

She said she emailed first on Oct. 26, and then emailed again a week later because no one responded. She said to date, and after several emails, only her school board representative responded with a suggestion of who to email to get a response about if and how her complaint was being investigated. She said these books, with explicit sexual content, "is a huge concern for me. It makes me upset. We need to reel it in a little bit."

The books that have been removed from the high school libraries are:

  • "The Bluest Eye," by Toni Morrison.
  • "Beyond Magenta," by Susan Kuklin, which is a nonfiction book about six transgender teens.
  • "Monday's Not Coming," by Tiffany Jackson, a fiction book about a Black middle school girl who goes missing and no one notices, and it has a 14-and-older recommendation for sexual content.
  • "Out of Darkness," by Ashley Hope Perez, a novel set in 1937 in New London, Texas that examines segregation, love, family and racism.
  • "The Opposite of Innocent," by Sonya Sones, a coming-of-age novel about a 14-year-old in love with an adult male friend of her parents.
  • "Lawn Boy," by Jonathan Evison, a semi-autobiographical coming of age novel that examines race, class and whether everyone has access to the American dream.
  • "Lolita," by Vladimir Nabokov, which is one of the few "classics" on the list, as it is widely considered among the top 100 novels written. It's the story of a middle-aged professor who is obsessed with a 12-year-old girl and engages in a pedophilic relationship with her.
  • "Gender Queer," by Maia Kobabe, which is a memoir that a parent recently read excerpts from at a Canyons School Board meeting. This book, a graphic novel in which Kobabe discusses sexual orientation and gender identity, has made headlines recently for causing controversy in other states, including Texas.
  • "L8R G8R," by Lauren Myracle, a novel written in instant messaging text that has become the country's No. 1 banned book due to sexual content.

Felt like an 'Old Yeller' situation

On Oct. 29, three days after the mother's email was sent, Brighton High librarian Catherine Bates said she was "directed" to remove five titles from the shelves of the school's library she has overseen for the last nine years "because of content."

"My immediate response was, 'What about the policy?'" she said. "I'd been on the committee to create the policy, so I knew what it was. ... I knew they were not (following) the policy."

She said the committee that rewrote the policy included school librarians and an attorney who represents the Canyons School District.

"We wanted it to be ironclad, in case this ever happened," she said. "We looked at policies in 20 different districts."

At first, Bates refused to remove the books. She said four days passed, and she thought the controversy had been resolved.

"I got a call, and I was told that the books were coming off the shelves, whether I was willing to do it or not," she recalled. "And ... I did it. I felt like it was an 'Old Yeller' situation. I'm going to be the one to shoot the dog. ... It happened on my watch.

"What I was really hoping was that they would reread the policy and then backpedal. That's what I thought was going to happen," she said. "I thought this would be resolved in a day."

Bates said the books are now sitting in the offices of two different school administrators. She reported the incident to the National Coalition Against Censorship, which posted a story about the incident on its website last week. The executive director of the group also wrote a letter to the Canyons Board of Education, calling on it to put the books back on the shelves and follow the district's own policy on challenges to books.

"These books are not of interest to every student," the letter signed by Christopher Finan said. "But if every library book is required to serve every student, the shelves of the library would be bare. A library, including a school library, is meant to include a broad section of books that provide value to students. These books do just that."

The letter and the story only addressed five of the books removed — the five titles owned by the Brighton High's library. Jordan High had seven titles listed in the email, Corner Canyon High had one title, and Alta High had seven of the titles.

Brighton High School in Cottonwood Heights.
Brighton High School in Cottonwood Heights. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Some of the books have never been checked out, and others have only been checked out one or two times, sometimes never by a student, according to district library records. Several, including "Lolita," which is only owned by Alta High's library, was checked out for the first time in August of this year, the records indicate. Several titles were checked out then and have not been returned to the library yet, three months later.

Bates said some people may see the fact that there isn't a lot of interest in these books as another reason to just eliminate them from the library's available titles.

"One of the greatest tenets of librarianship is that you serve every member of your population," Bates said. "I know for a fact that there are transgender kids at my school. So I'm going to have books about transgender issues in my library."

Bates said she is stunned that the school district chose to remove books from shelves without an actual challenge.

"I am appalled," she said. "I guess I assumed it was possible, which is why we prepare for something like this. I don't think as a librarian you ever expect it. You don't expect people to go against their own policies, for one thing. ... But access to information is such a universally, bipartisan concept. I just don't understand in what realm you decide limiting access to information is going to take you down a good path."

Book challenges up nationwide

Wanda Mae Huffaker, a librarian since 1993, works for Salt Lake County Library system, is the past chairwoman for Intellectual Freedom Roundtable and a member of the board of the Freedom to Read Foundation. She said she heard about the books being pulled off the shelves in the Canyons School District through a weekly email that lists targeted books.

"Books are being pulled all over the country," Huffaker said. "Book challenges are up 60 percent in the country. They're happening in every single state."

And when she said the challenges are up 60% over last year, she notes that 'this year' doesn't end until Dec. 31.

Huffaker said she recently received a call about books being targeted in a school library in St. George, but she gets calls nearly every week from different libraries throughout the state — from school and public libraries alike.

"The process is the issue," she said, "and that's what's alarming about this situation."

She said most libraries have written policies about how to challenge a book and what the process for review is.

"We've done this every couple of weeks in the county system this year," she said. "I read this, and I ask, 'Why did this just happen? What are these books?' ... This is crazy stuff."

The American Library Association tracks attempts to ban books and considers taking books out of circulation without following standard review processes as censorship.

Huffaker said challenges began to increase last year, and most of the targets were books about race. This year, and specifically in Utah, the challenges are more often aimed at LGBTQ content and sexual content.

Until now, Haney said the Canyons School District doesn't have any record of books ever being challenged. Bates said her mother, also a librarian for nine years, dealt with one challenge during her career, although that likely pre-dated the formation of the Canyons District, which is 13 years old.

Alta High School in Sandy.
Alta High School in Sandy. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

At the Canyons School Board meeting on Nov. 8, a woman read aloud from a book that she said she found on the shelves of Alta High School's library.

"It saddens me to be addressing this tonight, but it's highly necessary," a woman identified by a board member as Jessica Anderson said during the public comment period.

"The parents of this nation have been awakened to what's going on in the public school system, and we're not backing down. Parents need the first look and last say on everything happening in our schools. The current policies and practices are clearly not working. This book," she said, waving it in the air, "was available to students at Alta High library until parents, not the administration, had it removed for the highly inappropriate content. This book should have never been available from the library at the time it was exposed."

She read two sections, the second of which was sexually explicit, until her time expired. After she finished, some parents applauded her, while a school board member asked for "decorum."

Most policies don't allow patrons to challenge passages or sections of a book. Any challenge and subsequent review must consider the work in its entirety.

The email from Megan said: "Most of the content I do believe falls under pornographic material. Some of the material and choice of wording is extremely graphic and detailed."

But Bates said the books in question "are not titillating" and they have literary value as they explore difficult but vital topics. She'd like to see the books returned to the shelves of libraries until reviews are conducted, and she'd like to know who is reviewing the books.

Haney said the district's policy review committee met Tuesday to discuss the issues with the policy and what should happen next. He said it will evaluate, review and discuss all related issues and decide how to move forward. This group eventually makes recommendations to the school board, and it's the board that would adopt any changes or new policies.

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A high school administrator in the district who spoke on the condition of anonymity said he doesn't understand why parent groups are targeting books when "every kid has a cellphone."

"It doesn't make any sense to me," he said. "It's like they're looking for a cause to fight for. Maybe it made more sense 50 years ago."

As parent groups target different aspects of public education, the administrator said voices of a few drown out the majority.

"My problem with the whole thing is that 25 sets of parents are dictating everything for thousands and thousands of other students," he said. "That's my problem, and it's scary."

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