The Littlestown Area School District is making use of its newly-revised resource materials policy (Policy 109) to consider challenges to 35 books currently in the high school library. The challenges came over the past weeks in a set of 15 books followed by another set of 20 books. District Superintendent Chris Bigger said the challenges were from Janell Ressler and that each was submitted on a separate form for the district’s consideration, as specified in Policy 109.
Bigger said the policy, originally approved in 1990, was recently revised because it did not have a mechanism for challenges from the public and that the revisions took some time. “It takes time to put a quality product together, especially around an issue of constitutional rights. We’re thinking of it as a legal matter.”
The updated policy specifies guidelines for the appropriateness of resources and an eleven-step process for handling complaints.
Bigger said the district had created two committees, operating in parallel, which reviewed the first set of books “in a reasonable amount of time.” Each committee was made up of either a high school principal or assistant principal, along with three teachers and a parent.
Five of the challenged books, “Looking for Alaska” by John Green, “Beloved” by Toni Morrison, “The Glass Castle” by Jeannette Walls, “The Kite Runner” by Khaled Hosseini, “The Hate U Give” by Angie Thomas, and “Monday’s Not Coming” by Tiffany D. Jackson had already been approved by the school board as part of the current curriculum and were not reviewed.
The committees evaluated the other 10 library books, “Sold” by Patricia McCormick, “Shine” by Lauren Myracle, “Stamped” by Jason Reynolds & Ibram X Kendi, “Speak” by Laurie Halse Anderson, “The Bluest Eyes” by Toni Morrison, “Perks of Being a Wallflower” by Stephen Chboski, “The Poet X” by Elizabeth Acevedo, “ttylb” by Lauren Myracle, and “L8R G8R” by Lauren Myracle.
Bigger said Ressler’s objections to the first 10 books focused mostly on obscenity and/or mature content.
The committee decided that each book did not violate standards and should therefore remain on the shelves.
Ressler has appealed the decisions. According to the policy the appeal will be reviewed by the district’s Curriculum, Co-Curriculum, and Policy Committee and then, if necessary, by the full school board.
Bigger said the committee members were trained to evaluate the books objectively, using a standard established by the U.S. Supreme Court case Miller v. California. The “Miller Test” for obscenity includes the following criteria: (1) whether ‘the average person, applying contemporary community standards’ would find that the work, ‘taken as a whole,’ appeals to ‘prurient interest’ (2) whether the work depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by the applicable state law, and (3) whether the work, ‘taken as a whole,’ lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.
The committee also took guidance from the American Library Association Bill of Rights.
“We worked really hard to eliminate personal beliefs during the process,” said Bigger. “The policy helps the committee determine what standards to use
Bigger said the committees took into consideration both community and age-based standards. “New York City and Littlestown might have different community standards,” he said. “And there is an age-appropriateness question. A book with mature themes might be inappropriate for elementary school but still appropriate in a high school.”
Bigger said the policy ensured students’ access to books is decided by more than one person and therefore that any decisions to remove a resource would be more likely to stand up to any potential first amendment legal challenges.
Explaining the district’s decision to keep the committee members’ names anonymous, Bigger said he was concerned about potential threats if the names were made public. He said some people had expressed concern due to the sensitive nature of the decisions and said it might be more difficult to get people to participate on the committees if their names were shared. “I don’t want people to be the discussion,” he said.
Ressler has filed a right to know document requesting the names of the committee members.
Bigger said he thought parents should be involved in making the decisions. “We’re not forcing these books on anyone. The community level of the family should come into play. When we have difficult decisions to make we always provide options and opportunities. Whenever you give parents choices we all can find common ground. It is when choices are removed that you end up with fewer freedoms and liberties,” said Bigger.
Bigger said one potential remedy would be to require a parental permission sign off form on the books in question but that students were already reading very few books from the high school library. “In six years only 660 books have been checked out of the library,” he said. “There’s only one copy of each book.”