Removing books limits our growth, student tells Canyons School Board

When Alta High student Alisha Ruiz saw the titles of the nine books pulled from the shelves of four high school libraries by Canyons School District officials after a parental complaint, she said she couldn't help but take it personally.

"When I saw stories like ‘Lawn Boy’ and ‘Out of Darkness,’ and even ‘Monday's Not Coming’ on the banned list, I felt as though my life experience didn't matter," said Ruiz, who serves on the Canyons District's Student Advisory Council.

"I felt as though your true goal to remove the stories of real lives is bad just because it makes you uncomfortable. And to be honest, if you're uncomfortable with anti-racism in the lives of minorities, then you are the problem," she said. "These books are made for people who relate to them, and for those to learn. If you remove these books, you not only limit the growth of young minds, but you take away from students who could heal and grow from these stories.

"You strip away a possibility of connection, inspiration and comfort."

Ruiz was one of about a half-dozen students who spoke against a proposed revision to the district's policies on how library books are acquired, challenged and taken out of circulation.

The revisions were prompted by an email from a Sandy woman who asked district officials to review videos criticizing nine books, including classics like "Lolita," by Vladimir Nabokov, and "The Bluest Eye," by Toni Morrison. The parent said she believes some of the books' content "falls under pornographic material" and described some excerpts as "extremely graphic and detailed."

While the district's policies on challenges to library titles states that books should remain in circulation until a review is complete, Canyons School District officials chose to remove all nine titles mentioned in the email from Alta, Brighton, Corner Canyon and Jordan high schools because they felt the policy was flawed as it doesn't allow for challenges to come from district officials or board members.

At Tuesday night's board meeting, Canyons School District Superintendent Rick Robins said his "recommendation would be that once this process is complete, then these titles would fall under this process." That means that if the board adopts these policy changes at their next meeting, then the books could be returned to shelves until a review is complete.

That, however, is not certain, as the proposed policy allows for a district-level review committee to pull titles from circulation while they're being reviewed if it feels that's appropriate. Challenges at the school level require books to remain in circulation while a review is conducted.

Other changes provide a more specific process outlining how books are acquired, reviewed and taken out of circulation. One board member said there are more than 400,000 titles in the schools in the district, with about 168,000 of those in the 13 secondary schools.

Parents, teachers and retired librarians also addressed the board Tuesday, mostly in support of diverse library materials and against the idea of removing books, especially before the review process is complete.

Katie Wilkinson, the mother of a freshman student in the district and a ninth grade English teacher, said part of the curriculum she's asked to teach explores "the human experience."

"Through this unit and school year, we as a district explore what it means to be human and what unites us universally," she said, "In this unit, we help our students see literature as both a window and a mirror not just into their lives, but the lives of others. Through literature, we are able to view other cultures and people we may not know. We have a window into their lives. We also use literature as a mirror, we can read and learn about ourselves, who we are and who we want to become."

She said the training she received from the district supports the idea of more diverse reading lists.

"During our summer professional development," she said, "we as language arts teachers were encouraged by the district to be more inclusive with our literature choices and recommendations to our library."

Only one woman who addressed the board was critical of the books in the district's libraries. Connie Slaughter, whose grandchildren attend Canyons schools, said she has grave concerns about some of the books available in public school libraries.

"I'm nervous about what's going on," she said, noting she lives next door to her grandchildren. "I want them to have a great education. I want them to go to school and not be wondering if they're learning something that I don't want them to learn. And I know my daughter-in-law feels the same. So I really am nervous. And I feel like as parents, we should have a say of what's in our libraries. And maybe if our libraries don't change, we just go elsewhere to find the books we're looking for."

Another teacher said students lose interest in reading if they cannot find a way to connect with the material. District policies allow parents to opt out of required reading to which they object.

Most of the nine books pulled by the Canyons School District after the parental complaint had rarely been checked out, according to district library records.

The proposed changes to the policies will come before the board for a final vote as soon as the next board meeting. Board members said they have received a lot of feedback from patrons concerning this issue.

Ruiz told the board that "representation can be life changing" and then she asked how she was supposed to relate to required reading lists that are devoid of stories to which she can relate.

"And one of the things I did want to bring up is some of the stories that are required to be read in our English classes like ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and ‘Animal Farm’ — what am I really supposed to connect to that? I feel like we should bring out more books of diversity so that other students can make that connection and have the inspiration to read more like I did."