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Utah State Board of Education still trying to thread the needle on book ban law guidance

Kelly Whited Jones, a parent from Davis County, addresses a small crowd about efforts to remove books from school libraries ahead of USBE’s meeting Thursday, June 30, 2022.
Jon Reed
Kelly Whited Jones, a parent from Davis County, addresses a small crowd about efforts to remove books from school libraries ahead of USBE’s meeting Thursday, June 30, 2022.

Members of the Utah State Board of Education continue to work out what they hope will be a model policy for how schools resolve concerns some parents have about ‘inappropriate books.’

Despite months of work, so far, and a nearly two-hour debate Thursday, they have yet to reach a consensus on how to move forward.

It’s been a confusing and contentious issue for public education stakeholders nationwide and in Utah, stemming from a massive spike in requests to remove books from school libraries around the country and a recent state law banning “sensitive materials” in schools.

While the Utah law defines sensitive materials as ‘pornographic’ or harmful to minors with no literary or artistic value, school librarians have been unsure about how to enforce it. Even the initial legal guidance from the Attorney General’s office conflicted with later advice from the Office of Legislative Research and General Counsel, though the AG has since clarified its directions.

Board members are considering several policy variations. Each lays out how parents, students or members of a school community can flag a book or other school material they find objectionable, triggering a review from a panel, public hearings and an appeal process.

The policies differ, however, in how strict they are, and whether they would simply serve as a model for districts and charter schools to adopt or as specific rules schools would have to follow.

Natalie Cline, a controversial board member who often speaks out against school efforts around LGBTQ inclusion, argued that the board needed to create a statewide standard to eliminate confusion.

Her recommendation states materials should be removed immediately after a formal complaint is made and that no students should have access to them throughout the review process, contrary to many existing school library rules. It would also require a school to immediately vet all materials students have access to, including curriculum, a potentially arduous and logistically-daunting undertaking for school staff.

Such a policy, Cline said, would provide “transparency and accountability that is currently lacking, so that parents can have the assurance that their concerns will be taken care of — instead of the game that we're currently playing where everyone's afraid to take action.”

Another policy initially supported by a majority of board members but not officially adopted tries to establish a “least-restrictive, transparent process.” It stresses the need for library collections that “represent varying viewpoints, perspectives [of] diverse ethnicities, and cultural backgrounds” and allows students access to challenged books with permission from their guardians.

Before Thursday’s meeting, a small group of parents and community advocates gathered outside the state office to urge board members to ensure the process is reasonable and fair to diverse groups of students.

Juliet Reynolds, a parent of four kids who attended the Murray District and a founder of the Murray Equity Alliance, said she showed up in order to fight back against the “intolerance” she’s seen in book challenges.

“I don't want my kids to suffer and not have access to knowledge because someone else thinks that's not appropriate,” she said. “We all have our own versions of what's appropriate and what's not. And to limit that to what one person's lens is it's not OK for the rest of the community.”

For Lei Huu, who immigrated to the U.S. several years ago, the issue is about freedom of speech and expression, which he considers sacred rights. He said he understands the need to provide age-appropriate material, yet he worries that overzealous calls to remove books could amount to trampling on the First Amendment.

“A lot of international students who came from Asia, from China, they stayed in the United States,” he said. “Why? It's because we have the First Amendment. We have the freedom to choose to read and write and be able to express ourselves.”

The board has until Sept. 1 to issue its model policy. It’s scheduling another meeting in August to further refine its approach.

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