The Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District is in the midst of reevaluating books available at libraries and school book fairs including the removal of any volumes deemed “sexually explicit” under state statute.
The change follows a public outcry that stemmed from a middle school book fair in March that’s part of a larger controversy over library materials available to students in the district of just over 19,000 students located in a borough of more 110,000 people widely viewed as a conservative stronghold.
District officials sent a message to families last week saying they started reviewing library policies and books in response to community concerns.
They began “an internal review of our library collections and book selection procedures and have already pulled books that were clearly inappropriate,” district spokesperson Jillian Morrissey wrote in an email last week.
Morrissey did not respond to requests for more information about the books that have been removed.
The district has convened a Library Advisory Committee made up of parents, community members, librarians, school board members and staff “to review existing collections policies and to gather information about specific library collection concerns,” the district wrote to families last week. That group began meeting in early March.
Officials say they are also seeking applicants for a separate committee that will be tasked with evaluating individual library books.
Separately, officials developed a new set of guidelines for school book fairs following concerns raised about an event at Teeland Middle School last month.
Early this month, district administrators shared with school board members a list of book fair protocols they’d already sent to school principals and librarians. The new protocols, developed without public hearings, came after a small group of people provided testimony to the Mat-Su school board voicing concerns that parents were not notified in advance about books that they said were available at the Teeland book fair in March.
Book fairs are typically the only annual fundraiser Mat-Su school libraries hold to pay for new materials. The fairs, usually held before and after school, also sometimes allow students to peruse books, along with trinkets and posters, during the day. Books often come from large vendors like Scholastic, and school librarians have little control over what they get. But with rising shipping costs, some schools have also turned to local bookstores as vendors. Palmer’s Fireside Books worked with Teeland Middle School on their recent book fair.
Under the district’s new book fair rules, which were not voted on by the school board, parents can withdraw students from a book fair and should be notified two weeks before the fair while also emailed a list of the books.
The guidelines say book fairs will be canceled if vendors do not provide book lists before displaying the titles.
The protocol also says to remove any books with “sexually explicit” content, citing an Alaska state statute that says it’s illegal for adults to distribute certain “indecent material” to children.
Additionally, librarians are supposed to preview the books once they arrive, and the district can provide substitutes while the librarians review the books for such “explicit” content.
“The decision to hold or cancel the book fair rests with the school,” the protocols say.
The new policy appears to follow guidance from law firm JDO Law that was included in the information sent to teachers and school board members. Morrissey didn’t answer whether the district was using internal or external counsel as it reviews materials.
The book fair protocols surfaced amid the larger effort underway at the district to review what’s available at school libraries, as well as how those books are selected, according to Morrissey.
“As the library collections are currently being reviewed, it made sense to District leaders to align practices for book fairs and library collections,” she wrote by email.
At recent Mat-Su school board meetings and in emails to officials, multiple people have voiced concerns over certain books in public and school libraries, including concerns that having the books available could violate state statute, as well as concerns over parent notification about library materials.
Some said they took issue with books that they said were “sexually explicit,” while others raised issues with books that had LGBTQ+ elements or themes.
Others expressed concern over the removal of books, and how that might impact LGBTQ+ students, infringe on First Amendment rights. They also emphasized that students and parents have a choice over what they do and do not check out from libraries and purchase at book fairs.
Only a few people specifically raised concerns over books available at the Teeland Middle School book fair and how parents were notified about the books, including one person who called for the firing of the principal.
Mat-Su school board president Tom Bergey said in an interview last week that the Teeland book fair outcry fueled the speed at which the new book fair protocols were released. He said he thought if the book fair hadn’t occurred, the protocols would have likely been released anyway, though potentially at a later date.
“We’re trying to send a concise message across the community that this is the way it’s going to happen,” Bergey said.
The United States has seen a growing controversy over a movement to ban certain books in public schools and libraries, especially books that relate to gender, sexuality and race.
In Anchorage, books in the Anchorage School District and municipal library systems have been the subject of recent community flare-ups. An Anchorage Library Advisory Board recently voted to sidestep existing procedures and refer a book — a graphic novel, “Let’s Talk About It,” by Erika Moen and Matthew Nolan — to the city’s attorney to ascertain whether the book broke state or municipal law.
The attorney later asked the library to first go through its own process for reviewing the book.