For the second time in a week, Utah lawmakers railed on Davis School District’s process for challenging school library books and other instructional materials.

Sen. John Johnson, R-North Ogden, said the decision of a district-appointed book review committee to retain “The Freedom Writers Diary” by Erin Gruwell, which some lawmakers say violates “bright line” provisions of state law, could render district officials “accessory to distribution of pornography to minors.”

Sen. John Johnson, R-North Ogden, asks Davis School District representatives questions about their sensitive materials policy during a Utah Legislature’s Education Interim Committee meeting at the House Building in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, June 14, 2023. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

HB374, sponsored by Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan, and passed by the Utah Legislature in 2022, defines “sensitive material” as instructional materials that are pornographic or indecent, colloquially referred to as the “bright line rule” in state code. 

The district committee’s decision has not been appealed so the book remains in school libraries, under the district’s review policy.

A review of the book published in Library Journal said it is based on diaries kept by the author’s students. “Gruwell was a first-year high school teacher in Long Beach, California, teaching the ‘unteachables,’” the review said.

After introducing her students to books about tolerance, “the students were inspired to start keeping diaries of their lives that showed the violence, homelessness, racism, illness and abuse that surrounded them,” the review states.

Rep. Karianne Lisonbee, R-Clearfield, said school district officials could de-select the title themselves because it violates the “bright line rule.”

Rep. Karianne Lisonbee, R-Clearfield, speaks during a Utah Legislature’s Education Interim Committee meeting at the House Building in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, June 14, 2023. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

“This is a tool that the state has given you, this definition, this bright line rule doesn’t require a previous community standard evaluation. If the ‘bright line rule’ is violated, it’s out. There’s no evaluation necessary,” she said during Wednesday’s meeting of the Utah Legislature’s Education Interim Committee.

Lisonbee continued, “If someone on the street gave a child pornographic material, they could be arrested. We should not be having pornographic material distributed to our children on school grounds.”

Rep. Kera Birkeland, R-Morgan, said there will be more legislation to further refine the legislature’s policy intent and to clarify review policies.

The Administrative Rules and General Oversight Committee voted Monday to open a bill file intended to make elected school boards more directly accountable for decisions on book or materials challenges. Review committees would become recommendation committees.

“The process itself, in my opinion, is very flawed,” said Birkeland.

The Education Interim Committee also voted to direct legislative staff to draft legislation.

“For me, it’s a priority that we ensure that the decision ultimately lies with the elected school board members as well as making sure that while the book is under review, that it’s accessible, but only with parental permission for them to review it, things like that,” she said.

Johnson said the committee needs to discuss additional legislature further, “but I would like to see some type of penalties put in this. It seems like we have some districts that are more afraid about what some Supreme Court decision was many, many years ago than they are with the state law, especially with respect to bright line rules.”

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Dan Linford, superintendent of the Davis School District, noted the challenge to the King James version of the Bible was lodged over alleged violations of the bright line rule. The review committee recently determined the Bible could remain in high school libraries but not in junior high or elementary schools. The decision has been appealed to a committee of elected school board members.

Linford acknowledged the decision was controversial “in my community and throughout the state and for that, I do apologize for that,” he said.

“It’s incumbent upon us to continue to review the policy and make sure that we can apply it in a way that in the future we can avoid those kinds of controversies but I will say in a democracy, sometimes those things happen and we’ve been anxious to watch our policy be seen through to fruition to see how that works,” Linford said.

A handful of educators addressed the committee during the public comment portion of the meeting, urging care with additional policymaking on curricular and library materials.

Kristin van Brunt, an educator in the Davis School District, said legislative proposals frequently seek more transparency in classrooms.

Teacher Kristin van Brunt gives public comment during a Utah Legislature’s Education Interim Committee meeting at the House Building in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, June 14, 2023. Van Brunt says the Davis School District is already very transparent. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

“This will be my 30th year in the classroom, this coming year. I feel like we are more transparent than ever. I have every lesson, every handout, every assignment, every video that I show in my class on my Canvas page. Every parent has access to that on a daily basis, 24 hours a day. I feel like more transparency is not necessary. It’s already there,” she said.

Lauralee Solimeno, who teaches English and psychology at an alternative high school, urged lawmakers to consider the importance of connection and representation in literature.

Lauralee Solimeno speaks during a Utah Legislature’s Education Interim Committee meeting at the House Building in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, June 14, 2023. Solimeno said she’s concerned about removing literary classics from school libraries. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

“As Ray Bradbury said, ‘You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. You just have to get people to stop reading them,’” Solimeno said.

“I think it’s incredibly important to allow those who are reading to connect to ideas that represent them as a person. I appreciate the idea and the concepts behind this but I am teaching kids at a third grade reading level and we have to change daily. What I want to bring home is that we have to get them to connect to reading first,” she said.