By Sandra Parks, NBCT, Retired Teacher Librarian
Recently there has been a lot of attention paid to censorship attempts in schools across the nation. Sometimes a ban is requested or demanded for whole lists or categories of books or sometimes an individual book, while some parents are vocalizing that they don’t feel they have a say.
Most, if not all school districts have had a policy in place to address the need to reconsider challenged materials for at least as long as I’ve been a librarian, and that goes back to the early 1980s. The purpose of the policy is to give parents and other stakeholders a voice to request a second look at a particular book and its availability.
Throughout my 29-year career as a librarian with Harrisonburg City Schools prior to my retirement in 2020, I participated in several reconsideration processes in which the availability of some books in my library were challenged. I found reconsideration to be a very powerful, scary, and affirming process.
Not every book belongs in every library. However, every student deserves and needs to have books which serve as window, mirrors, and sliding glass doors, in the words of Dr. Rudine SIms Bishop. All children need to see themselves in books. Students mature at different rates, and families have different values. How do we protect the rights of students and allow parents to have a voice in what their children read? These questions are all at the heart of the reconsideration process.
The reconsideration policy is written in the School Board-approved district policy manual and outlines the procedures that are to be followed when a person challenges a book. Wording may vary slightly from school division to school division, but the essential processes listed are similar.
Librarians bear primary responsibility for selection of resources for a school library, but do not have the chance to read everything that comes in. We rely on reviews and lists of recommendations and make every effort to select materials that will match our communities. We use our professional judgment, but it is possible to make a mistake. That’s why the reconsideration process is important. No one person should have the sole power to dictate what is in a library.
Most years I taught students about this process as part of Banned Book Week lessons, reinforcing their awareness of the First Amendment. Banned Book Week should actually be called more accurately Banned or Challenged Book Week, as most books on the official list have been challenged in schools, but not actually removed. In my discussions with students, it was apparent that they grasp the idea of age appropriateness of books. We would talk about the reconsideration process as a way of protecting their rights. The kids did not want any one person making the decision about what was available, but saw the fairness in a community decision. We also talked about choices and choosing books that they and their parents would be comfortable with reading.
The essential steps of the process are:
Contact with the complainant. This can be done by a principal, teacher, or the librarian. The wording for Harrisonburg’s policy used to be “School staff are courteous but make no commitment.” I recited it about 15 times to a parent who was screaming at me (literally) about why I wasn’t also personally upset about the language in a particular book. Now the policy talks about attempting to reach resolution. Typically once people realize that there is always an alternate selection to a reading assignment, or that a note can be put on their child’s record that their child does not have permission for a certain type of book, they lose steam about wanting to remove a book entirely. That’s resolution – allowing the parent to voice their concern, but also providing a solution to address that concern that works for that family.
The Form. However, if the complainant wishes to go further and ensure that no child reads the book in question, the next step is The Form. It’s fairly long and asks such questions like “Have you read or viewed the entire material? Are you aware of professional reviews of the work? What do you think is the instructional purpose? Are you representing yourself or an organization?” Usually there is a 10 day return stipulation, and a lot of challenges stop here, because the form is never returned. I’ve seen the form returned with scrawled, angry answers, and I’ve seen the form with detailed concerns and citations of reviews of the book. All receive consideration, but the more information a person gives about their concern helps the committee in their deliberations. A key piece of information is whether the complainant has read the whole book.
The Committee. If the form is returned, a committee is appointed, usually by the principal, that consists of teachers, the librarian, parents, and community members. In high school, some committees may also have a student, but no committee I ever served on did. Everybody reads the book in its ENTIRETY. This is vitally important because often the complainant is responding to something out of context. I’ve had some incredibly powerful discussions in these committees with dedicated, open minded educators, parents, and community members. We’ve discussed issues presented by the immediate complaint but also broader issues, such as the need for availability of LGBTQ books orhow much horror is too much for middle school. These discussions helped to provide guidance in selection.
The resolution: The committee makes a recommendation and the principal makes the final decision for the school. If anyone on the committee or the complainant is unhappy with the decision, it can be appealed, and it should go to a similar committee at the central office level. They make the recommendation to the superintendent and the School Board. Honestly, in Harrisonburg it’s never gone that far, so I have no personal experience with that.
I almost never knew what the outcome would be, unless I as the librarian agreed with the complainant. My first challenge came from my principal about a graphic novel that was too violent. In this case I was just building our graphic novel collection at HHS, and started with award winners.
One of the award winners was a Japanese book about samurai. However, it was a beautifully drawn book of samurai doing what they do:killing people. The principal saw a student reading it, was alarmed, and returned the book to me with a note. I took a look and agreed with her. However, the dilemma was… do I just quietly remove the book? I could do that and that happens more often than we will ever know. However, the next week I was scheduled to teach a lesson to government classes about the reconsideration process and their First Amendment rights, and I couldn’t face the kids if I didn’t uphold the process myself.
At the same time, in Rockingham County at Spotswood High School there was a battle between a teacher and the administration over display of Banned Books Week materials that didn’t go well for the teacher. Did I dare challenge my principal? With the emotional support of a colleague, I decided I must. I approached my principal with great trepidation and told her we needed to go through the reconsideration process. Irene Reynolds responded, “Of course. I can’t just waltz into the library and take a book off the shelf. Where’s the form?” We went through the process and decided to send the book to the public library.
One of my earliest challenges was to the graphic novel Watchmen by Alan Moore. The complainant objected to two pages that depicted a scene of domestic violence.She had not read the entire book, but when the committee did, we found that that scene was an important part of the character’s development and was not just gratuitously added. We voted to keep the book. Context is important to consider when reconsidering a book.
In another meeting, over the autobiography A Child Called It, which was challenged because of the description of severe child abuse, it seemed in the reconsideration meeting that the sentiment, especially from the principal, was that this book was too much for middle school, particularly one that had 5th graders (note: I would not recommend this one for an elementary student, but it was an important and popular read for older kids. The question was … how old?)
One of the committee members then told the story of a child she taught first in 2nd grade. She suspected and reported abuse of that child, but it could not be proven. This teacher then taught the same child in 7th grade, and suspected that the abuse was still occurring. She told the committee how the student read A Child Called It, and soon after came forward and asked for help, just as the boy in the story did. After we heard the story of that student, the principal quietly said, “We need this book.” The committee decided, however, that it should never be an assigned reading, but could be available for student’s choice reading.
While the level of organized attacks on specific types of books across the country are alarming, one of the most powerful tools to combat censorship is already in the school system’s toolbox. The reconsideration process gives a way for parents to have a voice, for the school system to review concerns, and for the book(s) to have a full and fair hearing, based on the entire material and not on snippets of text or pictures taken out of context. Some materials may be removed through the process, but it’s the fair hearing that is the part of our democracy that protects students’ needs and rights. Books can change lives, but students need access to books that not only reflect their own experiences, but provide a window into the world they live in.