The Matanuska-Susitna Borough School district this week publicly shared a list of nearly 60 library books up for review after being flagged over concerns they aren’t appropriate for school collections.
The list reflects what officials describe as an influx of book challenges, prompting the district to take the unusual step of forming a new library committee after suspending an existing policy established 15 years ago to reconsider books that raise concerns.
District administrators have already removed an unknown number of books that were “clearly inappropriate” from school library shelves, a spokesperson said earlier this month. Officials have refused to answer questions about those books, including how many were removed, the titles or reasons they were deemed inappropriate.
This week, following several requests including from the Daily News, the district published the list of 56 books that have so far been challenged by parents and members of the public. The district didn’t say if any of the volumes had been pulled from shelves or circulation.
The challenged books will ultimately either be restricted, removed, require parent permission to check out, or stay on school library shelves, district spokesperson Jillian Morrissey wrote in an email Tuesday.
The roughly 19,000-student school district, located in a borough widely viewed as a conservative stronghold, is in the midst of a broader review that began earlier this year of its library collections and policies, as well as its book fair procedures, in response to recent community concerns.
Kendal Kruse, a Mat-Su school board member, said many parents were concerned about certain books but weren’t using, or weren’t aware of, the existing reconsideration process, which starts with a conversation with school librarians. Some parents also felt uncomfortable discussing those concerns with librarians, Kruse said.
So instead of using the process, Kruse said, parents challenged books at school board meetings or in messages to board members, and the challenges weren’t dealt with.
Earlier this year, Kruse said, she was part of an ad hoc committee of library staff, district employees, school board members and community members that advised the district that its library procedures needed to be updated to deal with community concerns outside of public testimony.
“We’re trying to bridge the gap between the public and the process and make it transparent so that everyone can work together rather than this disjointed, adversarial environment,” she said.
Part of a national debate
The 56 books on the district list include several that are among the most challenged in the nation, while nine others are not currently listed in the school district’s library catalog online, according to Rebecca Moorman, who chairs the Alaska Library Association’s Intellectual Freedom Committee and is head of technical services at the University of Alaska Anchorage/Alaska Pacific University Consortium Library.
The list includes decades-old books by prominent authors like Judy Blume. Many are books geared toward young adults, told from the perspective of high school students about tough topics and include teenage sex or discussions of sex, Moorman said. Some aren’t even on Mat-Su school library shelves, she said, indicating the list may have originated as part of the ongoing national debate rather than locally specific concerns.
Moorman said she was troubled by the district’s general direction, taking book decisions out of the hands of librarians as well as parents.
“The whole thing about this is anyone can decide for themselves and for their own kids what they can read, but in a free society, they can’t decide for somebody else,” she said.
To review the contested books, the district is convening a new “District-Wide Library Committee.” The committee will have 13 members: seven parents/community members; two district staffers; two school board members; and two librarians. Any decisions will be based on a state statute that says it’s illegal for adults to distribute “indecent materials” to minors, district officials say.
According to district officials, over 300 people applied to serve on the committee after a request for applicants was issued less than two weeks ago. The district will conduct a lottery to determine who holds the seven community seats.
It’s not yet clear when the district will conduct the lottery to draw seats for the committee or when any final decisions will be made. Officials have only said that the committee is expected to meet later this spring.
In recent weeks, some members of the public have voiced concerns at multiple school board meetings and in emails to school board members about books housed at school libraries and book fairs as well as about how parents are notified about those books. Some specifically took issue with books that had LGBTQ+ elements or themes or books that had sexually explicit content.
“Why do children need these books in our schools? School is about math, reading, writing. If they want to learn about sex, it should be from their parents,” Don McQuown, who said he has five grandchildren in the district, told the school board at an April 5 meeting.
A community member sent an email to board members with a list of titles taken from booklooks.org, a national website that says users can “find out what objectionable content may be in your child’s book before they do.”
The email named multiple titles on the district’s list of challenged books including “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison and “Slaughterhouse Five” by Kurt Vonnegut.
Others say the book challenges negatively impact LGBTQ+ students and infringe on the First Amendment rights of students, and that parents can already choose and see which books their children check out from libraries or buy at book fairs.
Becky Ames, the parent of a ninth-grade student in the district, noted to board members on April 5 that the Alaska statute to be used in the review process references indecent material in part defined “as material that a reasonable person would find lacks serious literary, artistic, educational, political or scientific value for persons under 16 years of age.”
Ames contended that literary value is subjective, noting that many recently banned books had LGBTQ+ themes or characters and prominent characters of color.
“The limitation or removal of these books will mean that students who likely already feel marginalized will have reduced access to literary works that contain characters who act look and experience life the way that they do,” Ames said.
Nationwide, the nonprofit American Library Association announced last month that the number of books challenged across the country had almost doubled from 2021 to 2022 to 1,269 attempts and 2,571 titles. The “vast majority” were written by or about members of the LGBTQ+ community and people of color, according to the association.
Under review, off the shelves
In Mat-Su, the longstanding library book reconsideration policy has been suspended and replaced with the new committee, district officials say.
The prior review policies, adopted in 2008, describe a multi-step procedure to deal with the reconsideration of materials, from discussions with the school principal and librarian all the way up to a district committee, depending on whether the challenge is resolved. Questioned materials are to be kept “in circulation until a final decision is reached.”
Now, following the District-Wide Library Committee’s recommendation, any removed or restricted books will be moved to district administration for review followed by a potential review by attorneys, according to Morrissey.
In the Anchorage School District, items can be requested for reconsideration at either a single school or districtwide. Challenges at single schools get reviewed on site, and can be elevated alongside districtwide challenges to an “ASD Controversial Issues Review Committee,” comprised of administrators, students, community members and district employees.
The committee uses the American Library Association’s Bill of Rights, plus board and administrative policies as its criteria for reconsideration of materials. Challenges can only be for a single item and each person challenging a book can only have that item before the district’s committee at a time.
The titles are supposed to stay on the shelves through the process, and materials are supposed to be considered in full, not parts or passages.