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Concerns grow over efforts to remove books from Utah schools

Woman at the library, she is searching books on the bookshelf and picking a textbook.
The Canyons School District has been under fire recently for removing nine books from library shelves following an emailed complaint from a parent.

The Canyons School District has been under fire recently for removing nine books from library shelves following an emailed complaint from a parent.

District spokesperson Jeff Haney said because the complaint was from a parent whose student didn’t attend the schools in question, it did not trigger a formal review, He said the district is currently reviewing its policy to consider how to vet those kinds of complaints as well as reexamine criteria with which books are vetted.

Organizations speak out

In the days following news of the incident, several civil rights organizations, education groups and school library associations issued statements voicing concerns that the district violated First Amendment protections and unfairly targeted books from or about historically marginalized communities.

“What we’re concerned about is the process,” said Rita Christensen, president of the Utah LIbrary Association. “Librarians are really open and transparent, and we want to talk to caregivers and parents about the materials. But challenge materials generally are not removed from the library shelves until the entire reconsideration process is complete.”

She said if parents have concerns about a book in the library, the reconsideration process typically involves assembling a committee to read and review the book. It’s usually made up of administrators, teachers, librarians and parents, who then determine if the book should be kept, removed or perhaps reserved for older students.

The ACLU of Utah said Monday it was investigating the Canyons incident as an “unlawful attempt to censor content.” It successfully challenged the Davis School District in 2013 after a book about a family with same-sex parents was removed from an elementary school library. The book was ultimately brought back and the district agreed to never remove a book from circulation based solely on its LGBTQ content.

The issue of banning books from school libraries has become a growing concern in recent months, as parents and lawmakers in Utah and across the country have called for — and in some cases been successful in — removing numerous books from public schools. The push has often come from conservative-leaning groups and is viewed by many opposed to the efforts as one of several attempts to reign in school’s efforts to create more inclusive environments for students of different backgrounds

“We find it extremely difficult to reconcile that the disproportionate targets are directed toward Black, Brown and LGBTQ books and authors,” NAACP Salt Lake President Jeanetta Williams said in a statement Friday, in reference to the Canyons incident.

Evaluating books

Brooke Stephens, a parent in the Davis School District and member of Utah Parents United, has been spearheading a Facebook group designed to identify books with inappropriate material in Utah. She said her goal is not about banning every book identified, but removing material with explicit pornographic content.

She pointed to one book in particular that was removed from the Canyons’ libraries, “Gender Queer” by Maia Kobabe, that contains images of sexual acts. It’s a graphic novel about the author’s experience with gender identity and sexuality.

Stephens said some of the images in it cross a line.

“If you just look at the pictures, can't you agree that we can get the explicit pornography out?” she said. “And that's, more than anything, what I want out.”

Davina Sauthoff, a school librarian and executive director of the Utah Educational Library Media Association, said she worries the entire conversation around removing books could lead districts down a slippery slope, where books are removed based more on ideological concerns rather than considering the value a book may have to someone with a different perspective or experience.

She said school librarians already have established practices for evaluating books, such as ensuring that they have literary merit, notable reviews from library associations and whether they reflect a school’s student population and interests.

In reference to “Gender Queer,” Sauthoff said she has read the book and doesn’t believe it meets the legal defintion of obscene or pornographic material given its broader narrative. It’s also a book that most students likely wouldn’t stumble upon unless they were looking for it.

“I think kids that would search this kind of content out are probably looking for a safe way to understand how they're feeling about their own experiences and feelings,” she said. “That's the beautiful thing about a library is it self-selects for what kids may want to have access to or may want to read.”

Haney said the district has fast-tracked its policy evaluation and is expected to bring a proposal to its board shortly after Thanksgiving. He said the new policy aims to balance concerns parents have about the age-appropriateness of material, while respecting the First Amendment and a student's ability to access important literature.

Jon reports on quality of life issues, education and the economy
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