Ten Years After a Challenge: An Interview with Cassandra Barnett

Banned and Challenged Books, General Interest

By: Valerie Nye

I have been talking to librarians who experienced a censorship challenge to material in their libraries ten years ago or more.  I am especially interested in investigating how the challenge may have an impact on a person’s career.  In this pursuit, I had the opportunity to interview Cassandra Barnett who was a librarian at Fayetteville High School in 2005 when the school district and its libraries found themselves at the center of a very public and controversial attempt to remove books from the schools’ libraries.  Today Barnett is the Program Advisor for School Libraries for the Arkansas Department of Education.

VN:  Will you describe the challenges to library material in the Fayetteville schools? 

CB:  There were actually two challenge events.  The first was a challenge about three books that were in the collections of several elementary and middle schools: It’s Perfectly Normal by Harris, It’s So Amazing by Harris and The Teenage Guy’s Survival Guide by Daldry.  The parent making the challenge got a list of books from a conservative talk radio show.  So she went to our district website where our union catalog is located and looked up the titles on the list.  She did talk to the librarian where her child was enrolled.  The librarian gave her the form for challenging a book in the collection.  Instead of filing the challenge, she started calling the superintendent and school board members to complain and finally went to the newspapers.  She was very reluctant to actually bring a formal challenge.  She wanted to complain in a more public way.

The challenge was for one school but the superintendent charged the challenge committee with looking at the three books and all the schools that had the books in their collections.  Not all elementary and middle schools had these books in their collections.

The challenge committee made recommendations to keep the books in schools, but move some from elementary to middle or junior high schools.  However, the superintendent when reporting to the board, changed the recommendation to place all three titles on restricted shelves of the libraries.  This had the effect of encouraging the parent who spearheaded this first challenge to expand her objections.

After school was out for the summer, the parent went straight to the newspapers and announced that she had a list of books that she wanted removed from the high school library.  The newspapers reported that there were 70 titles on her list, but her published list included only 54 titles.  She stirred up a lot of controversy and the media whipped it up even more.  However, she only filed two official challenges (Push by Sapphire and Deal With It by Esther Drill) to the books on her list.  The rest of the books she continued to use when she spoke with the media.

Under the direction of the superintendent and the board, the high school librarians (I was one) were told not to speak out in public to counteract what was out in the public.  The superintendent and board felt that any response from the librarians would stir up even more controversy.  Eventually, our teacher organization published a letter we had written to address all the misinformation that was being thrown out to the public.  There was also a grassroots community effort to fight removing books from the school library collections.  Eventually, the school board decided to hold a town meeting that would be followed by a board meeting to make final decisions.

The town meeting drew way more support for keeping the books in the library with many of our students speaking out against censorship and someone trying to dictate what they could read.  There were few people who spoke for removing the books from the library.  It wasn’t until that final board meeting that Sarah (the other high school librarian) and I were allowed to speak in public about how we selected books, the parent responsibility, intellectual freedom, etc.  However, it was the district’s lawyer who made the difference.  Basically he told the board that if they removed books from the shelves without following policy or put books on a restricted shelf, they would be sued.  If they were sued, they would lose and it would cost them a lot of money.  That did the trick.  The books stayed on the shelves where they belonged.

As for the emotions; this was most stressful year of my career.  Hateful things were said about Sarah and myself in letters to the editor and by columnists and on television.  We had to stop our student aides from answering the phone because there was a good chance that they would be on the receiving end of some very foul language and ugly names. The parent went to the city prosecuting attorney and requested that we be arrested and charged as purveyors of pornography.  Maintaining a professional outlook would have been impossible if not for the support of our teachers and especially our students.  They were even more upset that someone was trying to tell them what they could and couldn’t read.  There were many community people who rallied around us as well.

The ALA Office of Intellectual Freedom was an invaluable ally.  They were supportive, provided us with strategies to counteract what was happening and proved to be very helpful to our school district attorney as he prepared to advise our school board.

VN:  You said that it was recommended by the board to place the three books on the restricted shelves.  Did each library have restricted shelves? 

CB:  By law, the state of Arkansas mandates that every school library will have a parent collection.  There is nothing in the law that says only parents have access to those collections so these are not considered restricted shelves.  When the committee recommended putting these books in the parent libraries limiting to parent checkout only, then they became restricted collections.  Based on what the legal people told us, Supreme Court rulings indicate that students should have full access to school library collections, no restrictions.  This would open the district up to lawsuits.

VN:  Had you experienced any challenges to library materials previously?

CB:  No, I had parents express some concerns about a book their child was reading.  However, after conversations with them, no one ever formally challenged a book.

VN:  What changes occurred at the school and/or in the district because of the challenge?

CB:  Because of the challenge, our selection/challenge policy was updated and tightened.  Part of the update required that during an open house, any new books added to the collection needed to be on display for parents to view (no parents ever came to look at the high school display).  In addition all new materials were posted to the website for a certain period of time.  I am not sure if that is still being done.  The district library personal positions were phased out and all acquisitions, cataloging, and district website maintenance have all been moved back to the individual building librarians.  When ordering materials, there should now be a recommended review or teacher request that is attached.  In addition, librarians became a little more vigilant (making sure age appropriateness is considered or parent permission is required) when loaning materials to other schools.

On a side note, the need for a classroom selection policy became necessary.  Teachers were not nearly as careful (in terms of age appropriateness) about what they put in their classroom libraries.  As parents started paying a little more attention to what reading materials their children were bringing home, they started expressing some concern.  So, it was deemed necessary to provide some more guidance to the teachers.

VN:  What kind of advice do you want to give librarians about revising their selection/challenge policies?

CB:  Make sure that you have a clear set of procedures to follow when someone challenges a book and that your selection policy reflects the mission of your school and library program.

VN:  Have you experienced other challenges to material since the incident in 2005?

CB:  Personally, I have not.  However, I have counseled several school librarians who were facing challenges and advised school librarians who were revising their district’s selection/challenge policies.

VN:  Have the challenges changed the way you “do business” as a librarian? If so, can you explain how?

CB:  Yes, I have become a much more outspoken advocate for the intellectual freedom of our students; not just of books but access to all kinds of resources.  I have presented on some occasions about this particular challenge and addressed the issue of school librarians self-censoring books with my librarians in the state.

VN:  Do you have any advice for librarians who find themselves in a similar situation?

CB:  Lesson 1 – Make sure EVERYONE knows the procedures for a book challenge

Lesson 2 – Follow the policy!

Lesson 3 – Contact the ALA Office of Intellectual Freedom, ACLU, National Coalition Against Censorship, National Council of Teachers of English, and The American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression.  All of these organizations offered support by way of consultation or setters of support.  You are not alone!

Lesson 4 – No matter how personally it hurts you, maintain your professionalism.

Lesson 5 – Do your homework: know the policy, know the law, develop talking points and stick to them when talking to people, identify misinformation, and inform the public.

VN:  Have the challenges had an impact on your career, if so how? 

CB:  During the challenge itself, I fully expected that I might lose my job because we were fighting it and speaking out.  Fortunately, it turned out that the community was very supportive and that did not happen.

VN:  Have you been or are you now involved in any intellectual freedom initiatives?

CB:  Since then, I have been a member of the Freedom to Read Foundation, and have served on the Arkansas Library Association Intellectual Freedom committee and on the American Association of School Librarians Intellectual Freedom Committee.

VN:  Thank you for sharing your story and taking the time to answer my many questions.

 


Valerie NyeValerie Nye is the Library Director at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe. She has been active in local and national library organizations; recently serving on ALA Council, the New Mexico Library Association, and the New Mexico Consortium of Academic Libraries. Val has cowritten or coedited four books including: True Stories of Censorship Battles in America’s Libraries published by ALA Editions in 2012. True Stories is a compilation of essays written by librarians who have experienced challenges to remove material held in their libraries’ collections. She has an MLIS from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In her time away from the library she enjoys road trips in convertibles and kayaking on lakes. valnye@gmail.com

 

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