During Banned Books Week, a school district wrestles with how to allow book challenges
A mural of frequently banned books is painted on school lockers at Milford High School. (Ethan DeWitt | New Hampshire Bulletin)
Milford High School students didn’t just recognize Banned Books Week: They painted a tribute in their hallway. Directly in front of the school’s library this week is an art installation with 11 lockers painted to resemble the spines of 11 commonly challenged books, from “The Catcher in the Rye” to “Maus,” the graphic novel about the Holocaust.
Across the hall, a display inside the library shows off a number of young adult books that have been targeted throughout the nation in recent years, many centered on teenagers grappling with race, identity, and sexuality.
“This library celebrates Banned Books Week,” a poster states.
But for the school district, book challenges are also a local issue. Last school year, a parent raised a complaint about the book “Gender Queer,” a memoir by Maia Kobabe about their journey toward identifying as nonbinary. The complainant did not submit a formal request to challenge the book, but amid uncertainty over what the procedures were, Superintendent Christi Michaud removed the book from circulation for “less than 30 days,” she said in an interview. The challenge was later dropped and the book restored.
This school year, Milford administrators and school board members are attempting to reorganize the process to challenge books – or any instructional materials. Proponents say they’re trying to create a clearer process while also imposing stronger checks and balances against improper complaints. But some parents, mindful of the challenge issued last year, are worried the clearer policy will simply invite more complaints.
“One parent now can take issue with a book or curriculum material, challenge it, and then that will be removed from the school for all of our students,” said Karin Cevasco, a parent with two children in Milford High School who also serves as the school district’s treasurer. “So it’s not just one parent making a decision for their own child, but for everyone.”
The new policy, which Milford officials say is based in part on a template from the New Hampshire School Boards Association, lays out steps that “a parent/legal guardian who is not in agreement with the school on its selection of books or other instructional material” must take in order to get material reviewed. First, the complainant must submit a “Request for Reconsideration of Library Media and Instructional Materials” form. Then, the principal of that school will assemble a review committee, which will have 10 days to look through the material, take a vote, and issue its decision.
If the committee decides not to remove the material, the complainant can appeal to the superintendent, the policy states. If the superintendent also does not remove the material, the complainant may appeal one last time to the school board, which would have 30 days to issue a final decision.
“We wanted to make sure with some of the book challenges that have come up that we had policy and procedures that allowed us to appropriately deal with those concerns and objections,” said Deputy Superintendent Christopher Motika. “And we wanted to make sure that we did right by all stakeholders by ensuring such a policy was tight and a procedure was in place so we could support our teachers but also support the concerns of our public.”
Much of that process exists in the district’s current policy, but the new proposal provides further clarification. It specifies that a complaint must be brought by a parent or legal guardian, which is not a current requirement. It also lays out deadlines for each step of the review process and states that any decision not to remove the contested material must stand for three years until a complaint against it can be submitted again. And it stipulates that the superintendent must not remove a book or piece of instructional material while it is under review – the central point of confusion behind the temporary removal of “Gender Queer.”
The proposed updates to Milford’s policy come as free speech supporters, LGBTQ+ advocates, and school officials have eyed movements in other states to ban certain books from school libraries and teaching curricula. A report this week from PEN America, an organization opposed to book bans, said that 1,600 separate book titles were subjected to book bans across the nation last school year, with bans appearing in 32 states.
So far, the phenomenon appears relatively rare in New Hampshire. Last school year, six books were challenged – unsuccessfully – in Bedford School District, according to the high school media outlet, BHS Unleashed. But advocates watching out for book ban attempts in the Granite State say they are unaware of any successful bans.
“I am cautiously optimistic that school board members and school administrators and school faculty and staff are attuned to the important representative interests of their students,” said Chris Erchull, staff attorney at GLBTQ Legal Advocates and Defenders, a Boston-based advocacy and legal organization focused on New England. “So that’s what I’ll say about that.”
Still, Erchull said the organization is watching closely. “It’s definitely something of high importance to us because school libraries and public libraries are really important places where young people especially have the opportunity to get access to information and ideas that they wouldn’t have otherwise to see themselves represented,” he said.
New Hampshire lawmakers have moved in recent years to pass laws creating new avenues for parents to object to classroom materials. In 2017, the Republican-led Legislature passed a law requiring school districts to adopt a process by which a parent can object to their child being given certain instructional materials and can receive an alternative lesson.
And in 2021, the Republican Legislature passed a “banned concepts” law that bars educators, school staff, and state employees from advocating for certain positions relating to race, gender, and other protected classes. Supporters of the law say it simply prevents instruction that unfairly singles out a person’s race, gender, or other piece of their identity; opponents say it requires teachers and administrators to self-censor what they teach and materials they use to teach it.
No New Hampshire law requires that school districts create policies for a formal process to challenge instructional materials and seek their removal from the entire school. But Milford administrators say that members of the public can bring complaints about certain materials to the school board anyway. Adjudicating those complaints through a formal process is better than hashing it out during an emotional school board hearing, they argue.
And the new “banned concepts,” known by many as the “divisive concepts” law, mean that challenges to classroom materials could more easily arise, they say.
Michaud said the slower, review-based process might encourage parents to more thoroughly review the materials and absorb the full context before they submit a formal complaint.
“I think part of our worry is that people take excerpts outside of the context of the storyline or of the body of literature and over-emphasize or even over-glorify just a few short phrases as opposed to really speaking to the context as a whole,” she said. “When we have had conversations with people, we’ve encouraged them to go back and to read (the book) more in its entirety.”
The rewritten policy is still a proposal; members of the school’s policy committee met Thursday morning in the school to finalize a draft ahead of an Oct. 3 school board meeting, where it will likely come up for a vote. The policy committee includes Michaud, Motika, and School Board Chairwoman Judi Zaino.
But Cevasco said the very existence of the policy – revised or not – is still a mistake.
“I think there’s still going to be people who feel very strongly that if a parent opposes a book or curriculum material, it should be for their child only and not imposed on the entire student body,” she said. “I hope that there will be a lot more information available and a lot more open public discussion about this policy before it moves forward.”
Last year, when “Gender Queer” came under threat and was temporarily removed, Michaud requested the irate parent submit the complaint through that same district complaint process. The complaint never arrived.
This year, the book earned a spot on the school’s banned books mural. A poster reads: “Gender Queer: #1 challenged book of 2021.”
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