Banned books debate goes local

Start the debate.

The Sioux Falls School District has removed a graphic novel from student access at two middle school libraries. The book, Stuck in the Middle: 17 Comics from an Unpleasant Age, now is available only for school staff to check out and use in class. Although I blog frequently about banned books, I don’t think it appropriate for me to engage in any public debate on this decision because the law firm I’m with does legal work for the School District (although I do not know if if we were consulted or aware of this particular matter). Still, it provides a chance to at least look at the decision-making process and what issues arise in these debates.

stuck in the middleAs I noted a month ago, the School District has a specific policy for dealing with complaints about library materials. A parent who believes an item “is not appropriate for any student’s use” can file a “reconsideration request.” The request is reviewed by an appointed “instructional review committee,” which must include a minimum of two teachers, the building principal and two parents/guardians. (The committee can include two students “if deemed appropriate” but none were appointed in this case.) The committee must weigh the “values and faults” of the material, “viewing [it] as a whole and not individual passages or images.” After considering specified factors, it must deliver a written “final decision” that includes “answers to specific objections” to the material.

The written report is what the School Board acted on Monday evening. It addresses the specific complaints made by the parent of a sixth grader, which were that the book “contained repeated foul language, sexual references, and pictures of teenagers smoking.” The committee’s unanimous recommendation that the book be moved to the libraries’ “professional section” was based in part on the “emotional maturity” of middle school students and a belief “the book would be more effective if a teacher chose specific selections and guided student discussion of those vignettes.”

The decision deals with and presents a variety of issues, such as:

  • How significant is the fact this is a library for grades 6-8? It did seem to play a role in the committee’s decision. In addition to noting the “emotional maturity” of middle schoolers, it also examined four reviews of the book from reputable sources, including what the reviews indicated were appropriate grade levels for the book.
  • What impact, if any, does the style or format of graphic novels have? Recall that historically state and local governments — and even the federal government — sought to restrict or ban comic books. And the art work certainly makes them more visibly graphic than a standard novel. Still, the committee itself recognized that research indicates “middle school students will read graphic novels when they will not read anything else.”
  • Is this a matter only for the particular school or does the public as a whole have an interest? In this type of case, the parent/guardian filing the complaint can appeal the committee’s decision. Otherwise, the policy requires only that the decision be submitted to the school board for action. In this case, ratification of the report was one of more than a dozen items on the board’s “consent agenda.” In contrast, if the challenge is to curricular material, the school board is required to “conduct a public hearing for interested persons.”
  • Does essentially saying this work — or any other library item — “is not appropriate for any student’s use” constitute “book banning”? The book was not removed from the middle school libraries. Yet no student will be able to have access to it there. This stands in contrast to, for example, access being allowed only with parental consent. At the same time, the work can be used in classes, students can get it from the public library (where a reserve list was building for the two copies it has) or students or parents can buy the book.

Undoubtedly, opinions on this decision will cover the waterfront. Yet regardless of one’s view, there are lessons to be learned as the community and schools contemplate and debate the issues raised by such events.

The school library serves as a point of voluntary access to information and ideas and as a learning laboratory for students as they acquire critical thinking and problem solving skills.

Sioux Falls School District Policy KEC

2 comments to Banned books debate goes local

  • Maren

    I know I’m a little late, but I just found this. I’m a librarian and an alumna of the SFSD (including Patrick Henry), but I no longer live in Sioux Falls. I would be deeply disappointed no matter which book they’d banned there, but this hits very close to home because I had a bad time at PHMS and books from the library helped me a lot. I think this one has the potential to do that for kids in similar situations, and one never knows what kind of book is going to connect with a kid and make them suddenly realize that they’re not worthless, they don’t have to put up with bullies, everyone goes through the same thing, etc.

    So anyway…determined not to let this stand, I sent an email to numerous District officials and to the Argus (they haven’t published it), filed a FOIA request for the parent’s written complaint and committee report, and formed a Facebook group where I’m posting the text of those documents as well as information and resources for anyone who may want to oppose the ban:

    Unfortunately we don’t seem to have attracted any current students or parents as I had hoped, although we do have other alumni (none of whom live in Sioux Falls). If you or anyone you know was planning to oppose the ban, I just wanted to let you know about this resource. There are multiple Supreme Court precedents specifically dealing with free speech in schools, and I think if a parent reminded the District of this they would probably back down rather than get into a court battle that they would lose.

    To answer a few of your questions above…I do consider this a full ban, and I think the ALA and civil liberties groups would agree with me. There is a well-documented chilling effect whereby teachers often choose not to use books that have been restricted because they don’t want a confrontation and fear their district would not back them up. As for the grade-level issue: none of the reviews’ recommendations start higher than grade 7/age 12. If they had somehow found a way to disallow 6th graders only from accessing the book, I would have snorted but gone about my day instead of launching a campaign. 🙂

  • Maren

    Oh sheesh, I just saw that you’re an attorney. Obviously you’re familiar with the legal precedents; sorry, didn’t mean to come across as condescending!