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Following backlash over library books, state school board looks to write new rules on library policy

Front view from a book hall in a library.
Thi Soares
The Utah State Board of Education is working towards a new rule that will govern how school libraries select and review material.

The Utah State Board of Education will move “quickly but carefully” to issue a new rule on how school libraries choose and review content, members said in a meeting Friday.

A USBE rule is similar to law and is legally binding for districts and charter schools in the state.

The board’s law and licensing committee is responding to calls from parents to remove books from school libraries they say contain inappropriate and pornographic images or descriptions. Others worry, however, the efforts could lead to censorship, particularly of books from or about diverse perspectives.

“As hard as this is going to be and it's controversial, I think the board needs to set some minimum standards,” said committee chair Carol Lear.

During the meeting’s public comment period, Davis County parent Sarah Johnson read a passage about sex from “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” a young adult novel about an introverted teenager’s first year in high school. It has frequently appeared on the American Library Association’s annual list of the country’s most challenged books.

“This is just like 10% of what I have found in my children's schools,” she said, adding that she had sent her son on a “secret educational mission” to check out other books she was concerned about. “I am livid.”

Two library specialists with USBE spoke about best practices in policy, noting considerations are needed for both the selection and maintenance of materials as well as how to handle complaints and requests to remove books. Not all districts and charter schools have such policies, they said.

Naomi Watkins, a library media specialist with USBE, said librarians seek input from many stakeholders when selecting material, paying particular attention to how books support classroom instruction, literacy and students’ recreational reading.

Reconsideration policies to challenge a book should be reviewed and updated regularly, said library media coordinator Sara Wiebke. They should also be posted publicly on a school’s website.

She said books should not be removed without a formal complaint and review committee, in which school leaders, librarians, teachers, parents and students read the book in its entirety and vote on whether it should remain. She noted librarians should not be punished if a book is ultimately deemed inappropriate.

Board member Natalie Cline pushed back on that last point, and said parents should play a larger role in the selection process.

“If [an inappropriate book] was put in there accidentally, then it needs to be pulled off immediately,” she said. “If it's being put in there knowingly, that's negligence and criminal, and we need to take strong actions against people that would intentionally try to sexualize our children.”

Lear said the board would need a thorough review of constitutional standards before it can move forward with its rule, both in relation to First Amendment rights and what is considered inappropropriate material.

“The U.S. Supreme Court has wrestled with this for many, many decades,” she said. “So it's not crystal clear legally, it's not even crystal clear morally for me. I am much more concerned as a parent, as a grandparent, with violence and guns, and I would like books about guns to be considered just as carefully by a review committee as are sexual materials.”

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