‘Book banning’ continues to leave parents, lawmakers divided

Amanda Darrow, director of youth, family and education programs at the Utah Pride Center, poses with books that have been the subject of complaints from parents in recent weeks on Thursday, Dec. 16, 2021, in Salt Lake City.

Amanda Darrow, director of youth, family and education programs at the Utah Pride Center, poses with books that have been the subject of complaints from parents in recent weeks on Thursday, Dec. 16, 2021, in Salt Lake City. Rick Bowmer / AP


Monitor staff

Published: 05-24-2024 12:49 PM

Modified: 05-29-2024 11:20 AM

Bow resident Christopher Lins has never shied away from speaking his mind, which is why he agreed to lead the challenge last year of the book “Gender Queer: A Memoir.” 

Other parents asked him to be the face of the issue because of their fear of backlash and it turned out their worries were warranted, Lins said.

“I got a lot of blowback,” said Lins. “Based on what I experienced, oh, heck yeah, I can understand why people shy away from it.”

Bow is far from the only school district to contend with book challenges – parents throughout the state have advocated for the removal of various books. Concerns over what books should be included in school libraries, and which shouldn’t be, have turned into a “book banning” battleground over what content is appropriate for school children and who gets to make that determination.

In Hillsborough-Deering, parent Betsey Harrington questioned the use of Sora, a library app that offers access to books like “Lesbiana’s Guide to Catholic School,” by Sonora Reyes, and “Flamer,” by Mike Curato. She said that as a mom, therapist, and a sex offender counselor, she was concerned that the administration didn’t know about the material on the app that she felt was not appropriate for kids, and would expose them to predatory content.

She said parents are rightfully worried about challenging material they don’t think is appropriate for a school library.

“I'm nervous too, I don't want the people around me to get shamed because I have an opinion,” said Harrington. “I just wanted to tell [the principal] that I wasn't in love with this library, and it turned into, now, ‘This lady is a book banner,’ and my identity changed overnight.”

Julie Porter, a Dover resident who filed a challenge late last year against “Boy Toy,” a book about a child being groomed and sexually assaulted by a teacher, declined to comment on the record due to fear of additional backlash.

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At the core of the issue are two camps that argue over age-appropriate content and who has access to it.

Parents who believe that books like “Gender Queer,” “This Book is Gay” by Juno Dawson, and “All Boys Aren’t Blue” by George M. Johnson contain explicit language that is inappropriate for their children, say they shouldn’t be used in course materials or available at the school library.

They maintain that parents should be able to make the decision whether their children are ready to read about things like LGBTQ+ identity and consensual and non-consensual sexual acts, not schools or librarians.

Parents on the opposite side, however, believe that the ability of some parents to ban books means that they’re deciding for all parents. They trust librarians, who are educated in choosing books and use official sources to make their decisions. 

They are also concerned about the political tone of some of the conversations, where conservatives are trying to censor diverse voices since most of the challenged material has LGBTQ+ or racial matters. They say that books in which traumatic events occur to characters that were written alongside professionals and mental health experts can be good tools for victims to understand what happened to them, and should be easy to access for that reason.

In the State House, both the Senate and the House of Representatives dealt with similar bills on the issue this spring. One, HB 1419, was ultimately postponed indefinitely, and another, SB 523, which had similar language, passed the Senate but failed to garner the three-quarters majority in the House necessary to bring it to a floor vote.

A third bill HB 1311, the so-called Freedom to Read Bill, would require districts to adopt a policy outlining how a school library selects materials and provide parents a clear path to challenge books and other material. It passed the Senate this week with an amendment.

“When it comes to addressing controversial materials in our school libraries we have a choice,” said Rep. David Paige, a Conway Democrat, who introduced the bill to the House floor. “We can retreat to our  corners, try to score points, and make accusations against one another, or we can agree to turn down the temperature and ask whether we might actually share the same values and goals.”

Bow debate

When Bow school board members met in April 2023 to discuss “Gender Queer,” they ultimately supported the district’s Media Review Committee’s report that the book was appropriate to stay in the high school library. School board members emphasized the importance of context in understanding the book’s illustrations and content.

Bow had updated its media review policy in November 2022, the same month that the original challenge was made against “Gender Queer.” The policy had not been reviewed since 1994, according to district Superintendent Marcy Kelley.

Kelley said the policy was based on American Library Association guidelines. It can be accessed on the district website and outlines a process where initially there is an attempt to resolve the complaint informally by the principal. If the complainant is not satisfied, a completed Form for Reconsideration of Materials should be filed within two weeks, which is then forwarded to the library and school board, and the principal will put together the Media Review Committee. 

The committee is made up of a school librarian, school principal, two teachers, and a PTO representative. The committee first reads the book and reviews the challenged material, and the challenge itself made by the parent before releasing a report.

Kelley asserted that complaints are thoroughly investigated.

“The committee spent many, many, many hours reviewing, first, of course, the book and then there are things that need to be considered within it,” said Kelley.

Kelley acknowledged that there were some comments from challengers about the makeup of the committee during the school board meeting, but that they hadn’t received any formal complaints about the school’s book challenge policy. She mentioned one change they made since the meeting based on community feedback.

“If a parent called us and said, ‘I don't want my child to check out this book,’ in this moment we are complying with that request,” said Kelley. “I don't know if you could call it a resolution or not, but the school board definitely heard families who wanted to be able to do that.”

But for Lins, a Republican who has unsuccessfully ran for a seat in the State House, it seemed as though the committee had decided before he and other parents could express their concerns.

“We were given our time out of obligation, and it felt like it was all for nothing,” he said. “The actual librarian that put the book in the library being on the review committee, give me a break. Are you serious? I mean, that's like in your face unfair.”

Challenging conversations

Outside of Bow, parents who have made challenges elsewhere also have felt that they weren’t heard.

Dover updated its policy about a year ago, and last November, the school board ultimately voted to allow “Boy Toy” by Barry Lyga to stay in the high school library.

“This is a slow train to nowhere,” said Sally Staude, a Dover resident in favor of the challenge. “And it’s been designed that way.” 

However, when asked about the policy complaints,  Superintendent William Harbron explained that those against the decision wouldn't think it's fair.

“You know, I think that's a natural human reaction to do that, but that's also why you have a policy that clearly outlines the stages that you're going to go through, or the steps and the processes you're going to follow and you need to adhere to those steps and procedures that you've outlined,” said Harbron.

In Hillsboro-Deering, the school board met with Harrington, and she said that the only solution proposed was that she could opt her children out of the Sora app that caused her concern.

While she felt vilified in the community, she said she was satisfied with part of the district’s response.

“To give the school some credit, they did go and change their policies, they did improve them,” said Harrington. “I feel like they were responsive, I'm not going to say like, ‘Oh, they're horrible, they're not doing anything,’ they have done some things, but they haven't really addressed the fact that there are books that are age-inappropriate.”