By: Kate Lechtenberg
As the year draws to a close, the Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF) is in its final push to collect statistics on book challenges that have occurred in 2019. And it strikes me that five years ago, in December of 2014, I was nearing the end of a 14-month-long book challenge in the school where I was the school librarian.
Since 2014, I’ve been afraid to write publicly about my own experience with censorship in public schools because of the pain, anger, and humiliation I felt during the challenge process and its aftermath. But now, I’d like to share my censorship story because, unfortunately, this story of a selection and reconsideration policy ignored and dismissed is all too common. It’s really not about the book or the specific school or people involved—it’s about the silencing effect of censorship.
Did I share my story five years ago? No. Yes. Sort of.
When a challenge to a literature circle book choice first occurred in 2013, I did not report it via the OIF’s website or any other intellectual freedom outlet. In fact, I don’t remember it crossing my mind to report the challenge in 2013. It was my second year as a school librarian, and I was completely shocked and bewildered by my administrators’ changing rationales for pulling the book, their assurances that they were right about the fact that the policy did not apply in this particular case, and their insistence that teachers had not followed the correct process for getting the book approved by the board.
Although the teachers and I disagreed with all these points and provided evidence in the policies and other curricular documents, the administrators pulled the book from over 60 students about two-thirds of the way through the unit. It happened so quickly, supported by logic that defied my understanding of school policies and intellectual freedom principles, and I was disoriented by being in conflict with school leaders I had trusted—and who I thought respected my professional expertise. In this way, my actions are consistent with the statistics that suggest that 82-97% of challenges go unreported each year. But after the dust settled that first year, I do remember telling myself that if a challenge occurs again, I would not let it get swept under the rug again.
And it did happen again: the very next year, another parent—a friend of the original complainant, we later found out—challenged the same literature circle book. Despite the fact that the teachers and I worked with our administrator to revise and clarify the students’ selection process for the literature circle unit, had offered over 100 choices with the support of the English department’s materials and the library’s collection, and had added a clear parental permission slip to approve their students’ choices, the 2014 complainant was under the impression that the book had been banned in last year’s challenged. Before the unit began, we were assured by our administration that we were in compliance with the policies; however, once the challenge emerged, the administrators again pulled the book.
This time, I was ready. After I raised the same objections with administrators and received the same shifting rationales that did not align with policies, I told my administrators that I would like to consult confidentially with the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom in order to make sure I was understanding our policy and related court precedents. That night, I completed the OIF’s online challenge report form, checked the box that said “I’d like someone to contact me,” and the next day, Kristin Pekoll called me at school.
Finding a community of support
Over the next few days, I spoke with Kristin Pekoll, Deborah Caldwell-Stone, and Millie Davis, then the director of the National Council of Teachers of English Intellectual Freedom Center. They asked questions, examined my policies and the documents I had compiled in 2013 to support my argument that in pulling the book, administrators were not in compliance with the district policy, and Millie Davis examined five years of our district’s school board meeting minutes to debunk their claim that the teachers had not followed the correct procedure for getting books approved by the board. For the first time, I felt heard and sane again.
Kristin drafted a letter to send to the relevant district administrators, laying out the ALA’s position and the relevant court cases that supported their argument that ultimately, the courts do give schools ample leeway to restrict text selections within the curriculum if districts follow their pre-established policies and procedures. In this case, Kristin and Deborah clarified that that meant following the reconsideration process outlined in our policies and keeping the book in use while the review process played out.
Unfortunately, the district was not convinced by the OIF’s letter and legal evidence. They continued to use rationale that was in conflict with court precedent and our policy, and they also began to question my professionalism and critique my choice to contact the ALA. Nevertheless, the support I received from Kristin, Deborah, and Millie saw me through a difficult time both professionally and personally, and I developed relationships that have continued to support my work and the development of my intellectual freedom advocacy.
The emotional toll of book challenges, then and now
What sticks with me the most is that my effort to follow our selection and reconsideration policies led my school leaders in the building, district, and local teacher’s union to question my professionalism. At different times and by different individuals, I was told that continuing to ask questions was verging on insubordination, that confidentially consulting with the ALA might be considered a violation of my state’s teaching standards about professional ethics, and that I needed to “stay in my lane” and recognize that “situational leadership” means that sometimes leaders must “put aside policies and best practices in order to handle the situation at hand.” (Actually, that’s not what situational leadership theory is all about.)
I am incensed all over again as I write this. As I review my notes from five years ago, my heart begins to race, and I feel the same frustration and anger course through me like it was yesterday. I remember crying under my desk in my office after my administrator warned me of my insubordinate questions. I remember the hours I spent talking through the issue with colleagues in my building and in my broader network of professionals. I remember shaking with anger after the meeting in which my union representative and district administrators gently but clearly accused me of violating my ethical commitments as an educator. I remember being scared but thankful when Kristin Pekoll told me about the Merritt Fund, which would support librarians who lost their jobs for supporting intellectual freedom.
Today, I am even more confident in what I knew then: that my administrators were incorrectly and selectively interpreting policy in a way that was most advantageous to the immediate public relationships concerns with two vocal parents, rather than the broader view of what is mandated by policy and best for the educational rights of all students.
And so I am incensed, but if I am honest, at the time, I felt humiliated. Having my supervisors and educational leaders question my professionalism is the most painful event of my professional career. I have always strived to be the consummate professional in my commitment to research-based practices and professional principles in my discipline and in my professional communication and relationships. To be accused of unethical, unprofessional behavior in my effort to protect the intellectual freedom rights of all students, not just the children of the complainants, was painful, embarrassing, and demoralizing.
I am proud of the way I conducted myself during the fifteen months of that challenge. I am proud of the way I spoke, wrote, and acted. Today, I would ask the same questions and follow the same procedures I did then. But it still stings to know that what I still believe are principled actions and positions were received with such condemnation.
Lingering fear, and considering administrators’ perspectives
In addition to the mixture of anger and humiliation I feel as I write this, I’m also a little afraid. Even though I haven’t worked in that district since 2016, I am still influenced by the culture of institutional self-protection that my administrators created. In December of 2015, I was told by district administrators and human resources staff that if I talked with anyone inside or outside of the school about this issue again, I would face disciplinary action. Even though I’m no longer under contract there, I still feel some vague fear as I share my censorship story five years later. In addition to the book that was censored, my professional expertise was censored as well.
My goal here is not to vilify the particular administrators from my school district; I understand that administrators face their own set of professional constraints and commitments, and that an administrator’s responsibility to parents is complicated and important. After three years of working on the Intellectual Freedom News, I understand even better than I did before how media stories about schools often misrepresent, oversimplify, and sensationalize book challenges, and so I understand my administrators’ fears of being subjected to media scrutiny.
However, a school’s responsibility is to all parents and their students—not just those who are vocal in their displeasure with school actions. So my goal is to share my story and shake off a little of that remaining fear, and to encourage others in my position to keep moving forward in support of the intellectual freedom rights of all members of a school community. I have a right to tell my story, to explain the professional and emotional toll, and to encourage others to tell their stories in whatever form is most comfortable. You have a right to tell your story.
Today, my focus is on preparing preservice teachers across disciplines and preservice school librarians to support intellectual freedom in their work. In addition, when I finish my doctoral program in May, I hope that my future work will also allow me to find ways to help preservice administrators understand and prepare for intellectual freedom challenges in their schools. If all educators—not just librarians—are educated about policies and principles that support intellectual freedom before challenges occur, I believe that all students’ rights will be respected more consistently, even in the face of a few vocal parents.
I hope that sharing my story helps those of you who have experienced a challenge feel less alone. If you haven’t already, please share your censorship story. The OIF’s statistics on banned and challenged books help us all understand the landscape of intellectual freedom, and I can attest to the liberating power of speaking up—both then and now.
Kate Lechtenberg earned a doctoral degree from the University of Iowa’s College of Education, where her research focused on how teachers select, frame, and facilitate discussions about controversial issues. She teaches courses in young adult and children’s literature, collection development, and critical literacy at the University of Iowa. Find her on Twitter @katelechtenberg.