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Nampa School Board, staff, parents discuss path forward on challenged books

Two people dressed as handmaids from Margaret Atwood’s novel, “The Handmaid’s Tale,” entered the Nampa School District’s board room and took a seat in the front row.

NAMPA, Idaho —

This story originally appeared in the Idaho Press.

Two people dressed as handmaids from Margaret Atwood’s novel, “The Handmaid’s Tale,” entered the Nampa School District’s board room and took a seat in the front row of the audience. Each held a copy of that book.

So began the special board work session on Monday evening that included a portion dedicated to discussing the process for challenged books in the district. The meeting included reflection from board of trustees about the decision to remove books from school libraries last month, their thoughts on going forward, and comments from school librarians and parents that had participated in the review process of those books.

“All of this is just a discussion, because I think it’s really important that we make sure that we have a really good, solid, transparent, written down, consistent process that all of our patrons, our parents, our staff … everybody knows that this is the process we will use to challenge books,” said Board Chair Jeff Kirkman at the beginning of the meeting.

The meeting was open to the public, but there was no time for public comment included in the discussion.

At the board’s May meeting, three of the board’s five members voted to remove 22 books from the district’s libraries “forever,” citing concerns about “pornography,” as previously reported. The books in question were in the process of being reviewed by committees of teachers, staff, and parents, but it was unclear how the board’s decision would affect that process, and what process the district would use to evaluate challenged books going forward.

Following the decision, the district had released a statement saying, “the board and district will work together to create a fair, consistent and transparent procedure for handling challenged books.”

At Monday’s meeting, Kirkman said he felt that the procedure for challenging books was less than clear, hence why he voted in favor of removing the books from libraries. After the meeting in which the board voted to remove the books, Kirkman and Trustee Brook Taylor met with some of the district’s librarians, as well as concerned parents for further discussion, Kirkman said. The notes included with the books agenda item on Monday’s meeting were taken at that meeting, he said.

Trustee Mandy Simpson said she was concerned that it is not the board’s job to come up with the procedure for challenged books, saying that the board should instead work on a policy that guides how the superintendent and district staff manage books that are challenged.

“If there are specific things that we want our superintendent and his staff to be doing in the process, it should be dictated through the policy,” Simpson said. “So I want to make sure that we focus on that as a board and what we need to do to make those changes.”

Trustee Tracey Pearson said she felt it necessary to have the books removed because community complaints about the books had been ignored for the previous year. That the books were still on shelves was a failure of leadership, she said.

“I don’t think (the books) were appropriate, and it was a failed system,” Pearson said. “So I had to take action, I felt, for the people.”

Trustee Marco Valle, who also voted in favor of removing the books, said that the challenged process is not transparent, and stood by his vote, while advocating for an improved procedure.

“An electric shock is sometimes needed to make changes the right way,” Valle said. “We removed those books, which I’m glad we did. But let’s figure out the process. I think it has got to be clear, concise, well written, and it has got to make sense according to our community, not to Ada County, not to Colorado or Florida, and all the places that we received emails from.”

Interim Superintendent Gregg Russell explained that the process through which the books were being reviewed was similar to the process by which curriculum is reviewed when challenges arise. Typically, this begins with a written complaint from a parent, and can be discussed at varying levels of administrative leadership until the issue is resolved, he said.

If a parent does not want their child reading certain books, they have options, Russell said. For example, if a parent does not want their child reading a certain book for class, there are alternative approved books the teacher can suggest, he said.

For the library, parents may request that their child be prohibited from checking out certain books, said Ann Christensen, librarian at Skyview High School, who was present at the meeting.

Christensen said that the review of the challenged books began with the selection of a committee of parents, staff, and teachers. Those committees had reviewed three books by the time the board voted to remove the books in question in May.

“My time as a librarian, as a teacher, and as a citizen went into it,” Christensen said, noting she tried to read the books at school when she could, but also read them during her free time. One parent who challenged the books was invited to participate in the review process, but declined, Christensen said.

Overall, the committees felt some books were appropriate for being in school, and some were not, she said.

Another parent who participated in the review and was present at the meeting said some of the age recommendations given by Common Sense Media, a media reviewing platform helping guide the review process, should be raised.

Nancy Finney, librarian at Nampa High School, said books that discuss seemingly controversial topics can help students see that they’re not alone in facing adversity.

“What these books are doing, is they’re opening our minds to hot topics that these kids are living through,” Finney said. “If you think that we don’t have kids that have been physically or mentally abused, you’re wrong. If you don’t think we have kids that have been bullied or raped, you’re wrong. Some of these books can give our kids coping skills and how to deal with this.”

Though books may seem extreme or offensive when a piece of it is taken out of context, the value of the book is often more than that, she said.

Finney, Christensen, and the two other parents present seemed to agree that a parent should have the ability to say if they did not want their children reading a certain book.

One parent expressed that it is about choice and protecting a child’s right to read, asking why a certain group of parents should get to choose what her child is able to read.

But Pearson said it would be impossible for a parent to know the content of every book offered in a school library.

Taylor, who voted against the removal of the books, said that some of the books in the list are high quality and are a reflection of the community.

“I would agree with you, that not only are some of these books phenomenal, but they echo the life of me and my children,” Taylor said, addressing the librarians and parent committee members. “We are a broken home, and my ex-husband is an addict. So I really appreciate your guys’ commitment to reading these things because I do believe our community is very, very diverse, even within its diversity.”

Kirkman expressed a desire to have the process for challenged books refined by the beginning of the school year, and that he anticipates that some of the books could end up back on library shelves. Board Clerk Krissy LaMont said that she would plan on scheduling a board work session dedicated to discussing the process in the coming months.

Several of the books banned at the May meeting were recommended reading for A.P. English Literature classes, as previously reported. As a result of the decision, those will no longer be included in the reading list, as previously reported.

At the May meeting, trustees and other district staff had discussed what would happen to the books being removed from libraries, and it was speculated they might face the same fate as materials being retired from school curricula: being thrown away. However, district leaders decided they would be keeping the books in the district’s warehouse until additional decisions are made, as previously reported.

When news of the banned books broke last month, local book retailer Rediscovered Bookshop mobilized, including asking the public to donate copies of the books for distribution in Nampa.

On Wednesday, the bookshop is planning a “Banned Books Giveaway” event at Flying M Coffee Garage in Nampa, 1314 2nd Street South, Nampa, from 6 to 8 p.m., according to the bookshop’s website. The event will give away over 1,250 copies of various books from the banned list that the public donated in one week following the board’s decision, according to the website. Anyone with a Nampa student ID card will be able to receive up to three copies of the books, and staff and teachers will be able to take home copies as well, as previously reported.

A banned book read-in will also take place on the school district’s administration building lawn (619 S. Canyon Street, Nampa) on Monday, June 13, at 6 p.m., organized by the Nampa Banned Books Fan Club.

The board’s workshop also included a discussion about the budget for the upcoming fiscal year, as well as the process for deciding curriculum, and the board’s priorities and goals.

This story originally appeared in the Idaho Press. Read more at IdahoPress.com 

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