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How are Utah school district’s handling library book challenges?

Committees of parents, educators review books for possible ‘sensitive materials’

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Henry Christiansen, a senior at Skyline High School, looks for a book in the school’s library in MIllcreek.

Henry Christiansen, a senior at Skyline High School, looks for a book at the school library in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, May 10, 2022. State and local school officials have worked this year to put policies in place to handle library book challenges.

Mengshin Lin, Deseret News

When the president of the Alpine School District Board of Education reported to Utah lawmakers recently about police being summoned to a school library to investigate a report that someone was allegedly distributing pornography to children, the seemingly surprised committee chairman asked for clarification.

“Are you saying to your school library?” asked Rep. Lowry Snow, R-Santa Clara, and co-chairman of the Utah Legislature’s Education Interim Committee.

“Yes,” said board president Mark Clement.

“Law enforcement?” Snow queried.

“Yes,” Clement said. The experience frightened the school librarians and “made them less effective,” he said.

Clement continued, “School librarians are trained professionals. They are not trying to peddle pornography to students.”

Clement said prior to the passage of HB374, Alpine School District had an existing process “that worked really well.” When a student came to a librarian, “they would suggest books that were appropriate for that student’s values and emotional needs.”

If a parent did not want their child to access certain materials, they could contact a librarian.

Since the passage of HB374, sponsored by Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan, the school board developed 11 drafts of a new district-level policy before adopting one in late September, Clement said.

Alpine School District Superintendent Shane Farnsworth said parents informed the school district via email of titles they perceived as inappropriate. The district conducted an internal review and identified 52 titles that merited further assessment.

It assembled 25 district committees made up of patrons and school employees to conduct the reviews. Community members outnumbered educators, he said.

Forty-nine of 52 titles have been reviewed. Among them 22 were removed from school libraries, 18 are available with parental permission or if age-appropriate for the reader and nine were retained, Farnsworth said.

Clement said one valuable aspect of the debate and policy development is that the school district is more carefully scrutinizing books it receives from publishers. “That part of our policy has been very valuable in terms of helping us to keep books that would violate community standards from getting on the shelves,” he said.

“But I hope you realize there’s also been a large negative in terms of teachers feeling that they are not trusted or that they are being labeled as pushing pornography, when really what they’re trying to do is help children,” Clement said.

As some patrons have pushed to have books removed, the ACLU of Utah has also been in contact with the school district expressing concerns about removing books without going through a careful process that protects individual’s rights, he said.

Some committee members questioned school district officials about why it has taken school districts so long to make determinations about books.

Although lawmakers passed HB374 in March, it took effect a couple of months later. Meanwhile, the Utah State Board of Education worked to develop model policy and the Utah Attorney General’s Office gave districts legal guidance to help them develop their own policies.

Davis School District Assistant Superintendent Logan Toone said since the school board adopted its policy in September, the district assembled 13 committees made up of parents, educators and others to review 44 books. Eleven books have been reviewed in the past two weeks, he said.

“Now that the pre-work is done, I wonder if you have an estimated amount of time that you think those standing functional committees will be able to move through the books that you’ve got?” asked Sen. Lincoln Fillmore, R-South Jordan.

“I don’t know the answer to that question but it will be quick,” Toone said.

Sen. Kathleen Riebe, D-Cottonwood Heights, said schools are busy and “this is now something that has been added to our plate and is taking up a lot of time.”

But the process needs to be deliberate because while some parents want certain titles removed from school libraries, others want their children to have access to a diverse array of literature, she said.

“I appreciate the time and energy you’re taking to look at these books because if we aren’t taking the time and we aren’t following the process properly, we are putting ourselves in harm’s way from lawsuits coming the other way. It’s really hard and I do appreciate the time and effort all of our school districts and our state school board have done to make sure that they thread this needle properly,” said Riebe, who is a public school teacher.

Park City High School student Jackson Smith told the committee that targeting content, ostensibly to protect students, restricts their access to marginalized voices.

“Hundreds of books, ranging from discussions on topics like gender equality and LGBTQIA+ representation have been pulled from the shelves. Topics on race, which often discuss inequities of being nonwhite, are swiftly removed, as not to offend any parents,” he said.

“Schools should teach us how to think, not what to think,” he added.

Sen. John Johnson, R-North Ogden, said state law requires that school materials that meet the bright-line test need to be removed from school collections immediately if the text describes or depicts illicit sex or sexual immorality and has no serious value for minors.

Johnson said he can see why educators would be somewhat afraid “given that the new law actually outlines exactly what pornography is and it is a felony in the state of Utah for someone to distribute pornography to children. So that bright-line rule is really important.”

Books that don’t cross that line can be examined to consider their literary value, said Johnson, co-chairman of the Education Interim Committee.

“But when there is pornography within the book, that’s clearly identified in the statute. Those books really need to go out as soon as you can,” Johnson said.