From a letter submitted to the Mat-Su School District Board and Superintendent. See actions to take below the letter.
Dear Dr. Trani and MSBSD School Board Members,
I have served as an educator for 22 years, the last 21 years as the. I would much prefer to testify in front of the board in public, but due to recent defamatory and slanderous personal attacks on the TMS librarian and principal at the last board meeting and in online social media posts I do not feel safe to do so. I want to assure you that as a certified librarian, I pride myself on being an ethical educator and take the selection of age-appropriate library books for our school library very seriously. Having my profession publicly attacked by members of the community, being accused of distributing pornography to children and accused of sexually grooming students in our schools with library books is disheartening.
It is a very challenging time to be a librarian. Part of our job is to carefully select books that support the curriculum and provide up-to-date, appropriate books for students to read for fun. As you can imagine, getting students to read for fun can be a challenge in our modern world with chromebooks and phones competing for students’ attention and time. The educational, social and emotional benefits of reading for pleasure are well documented in educational studies. “Research has demonstrated a direct relationship between reading fiction and both empathy and helping behaviors.” (Clark and Rumbold, 2006; Djikic et al., 2012; Johnson, 2012) One of the most important benefits of reading for pleasure is that “reading is associated with greater self-confidence as well as more empathetic understanding of other cultures and higher community participation” (Clark and Rumbold, 2006). Reading can be a safe escape to learn about new cultures, go on an adventure or escape the stress of school and home life.
Our library collections, like our students, are not the same as they were when many of us were in school. Our library collections are more diverse and inclusive, which is a direct reflection of the diversity of our student body and our goal to educate ALL students and to not discriminate against them. A good library collection should include appropriate library books that represent many points of view and beliefs systems that are reflective of the students we serve. According to the Code of Ethics from the Alaska Professional Teaching Practices Commission: an educator “ may not harass, discriminate against, or grant a discriminatory advantage to a student on the grounds of race, color, creed, sex, national origin, marital status, political or religious beliefs, physical or mental conditions, family, social, or cultural background, gender identification, or sexual orientation; [an educator] shall make reasonable effort to assure that a student is protected from harassment or discrimination on these grounds; and may not engage in a course of conduct that would encourage a reasonable student to develop a prejudice on these grounds.” This is a responsibility I take very seriously to protect our students from such discrimination while also providing them with books with characters that are just like them. A student shared this statement with me recently after the topic of banning books with LGBTQ characters from our schools came up in our conversation:
“Books mean different things to different people. Maybe they’re an english assignment you don’t really understand. Maybe they’re table top decor. But to many people in the LGBTQ+ Community, these books are a lifeline. A safe space. They help solidify our identities and sense of true self. They give us hope that we can live in a world that is more accepting. They let us believe that things will get better. They let us break away from the heteronormative society we live in. They provide comfort in the fact that we are not alone. Because we are not abominations. We are people. We have the right to happiness, it says so in the Constitution. And having access to books with people who look like us and identify like we do makes life a little easier to enjoy. I’m grateful that we have access to stories that cater to me and audiences like myself. Ms. Maki has made her library a safe haven for all students. Queer or not, books we read should never be exclusive. Ms. Maki has gone out of her way to respect that. I couldn’t ask for a better librarian. But I can tell you that it means a lot to LGBTQ+ students and people in general to have the access to books that represent them. It’s our right.” - Anonymous
I can assure you I take careful selection of books very seriously, especially when they may contain sensitive or controversial content. I read many book reviews, from a variety of trusted, scholarly review sources, consult librarians and teacher colleagues and I peruse those books before I catalog and put them on the shelf. Do I have the time to read every page of every book I select? No. Have I had books brought to my attention, read them in their entirety and decided to remove them from our collection? Yes, and I will continue to do that as it is part of being a good librarian. All librarians regularly de-select books for a variety of reasons listed in our Collection Development Policy.
Our societal norms, just like our dress codes have changed and adapted over the years as well. I remember a time when our staff debated for over an hour about our school dress code and how the newest fashion, yoga pants or leggings, were going to adhere to this policy. Spoiler alert, the yoga pants are still here, and the policy was adapted. Our library collection development policy, the guide for how library books are selected, de-selected and challenged is also due for an update and we owe it to our students and parents to provide a comprehensive, modern policy that supports our community standards and curriculum, protects the rights of parents, protects students from illegal materials and protects librarians and teachers from being charged with a class C felony. I look forward to working on a committee to update this policy and present it to the board for your approval.
Actions you can take.
It is crucial to convey that the current policy has indeed served the district well, and therefore, there is no need for a new policy. It is essential to assert that parents must have the freedom to choose what books their children read, and it should not be the decision of a small group of parents to impose their choices on the entire district.
There is an excellent fact sheet put out by the Alaska Library Association. Some of their points are:
There is no clarity on how the committee will review books. The new policy is unclear. Will a book be removed based on one word, phrase, or section? Will the entirety of the book be examined?
What happens after the initial 56 books are reviewed? A list of 56 books has been provided by the district. What happens after these 56 titles are reviewed? Will the new committee review all future challenges and if so, who may issue a challenge and what is the process for doing so? The existing policy spelled all this out clearly. The new procedures are not transparent.
A book’s literary or educational value cannot be determined based solely on whether it contains materials that are “indecent” per Alaska Statute 11.61.128. However, the district has listed this as the only criteria that will be considered.