By: April Dawkins
When I was a school librarian, I held a beginning-of-the-school-year meeting with my principal every August. At that meeting, we discussed goals for the school library program for the year, and I used the opportunity to remind the principal of our school library’s mission. As part of that discussion, I always made sure to include a quick discussion of how to handle any challenges to materials, both those in the school library and those being used as curriculum materials in the classroom. I wanted to make sure that the process for reconsideration would be followed and not circumvented. This process was part of district policy, but I always felt it was important to reiterate that the policy needed to be followed.
The power of policy can be seen in the recent case of Mangaman in Washington. In October, a parent in Issaquah, WA objected at the district school board meeting to the inclusion of Mangaman in the high school library. She claimed the graphic novel written by Barry Lyga and illustrated by Colleen Doran contained pornographic content. Unsatisfied with the school level decision to retain the material, she brought her concerns to the school board saying, “These are sexual images, they are naked images, naked and sexual.” She was advised about the procedures to follow to have the material reconsidered. The parent then filed a formal written Request for Re-Evaluation of Materials with the school district.
If you haven’t read Mangaman, the graphic novel follows Ryoko, a manga character who falls through a “Rip” into a western high school. As he grapples with culture shock, he retains manga characteristics such as stylized emotions. The graphic novel had starred reviews in both Booklist and School Library Journal when it was published in 2012. The specific part of the book that the parent objected to was an image where the characters Ryoko and Marissa are shown with Marissa in her underwear and Ryoko is naked. Ryoko’s penis has been pixelated. But the important thing to note about this page of the graphic novel is that the characters choose NOT to have sex.
When commenting about the objections, the author Lyga and illustrator Doran were surprised by the controversy. Doran said, “There’s no sex in the book. In fact, the whole point of the supposedly offensive scene is that two teens make the mature decision not to have sex because they are not ready. I call that a good thing.”
The district’s re-evaluation process was followed. The instructional materials committee reviewed the book and made a recommendation, and a public forum was held for input. At the forum on Nov. 9, the school librarian, Karen Kline, spoke. At the school board meeting in December, Ann Crewdson, who works with children’s materials for the King County Library System, also championed Mangaman and graphic novels in school libraries. Ultimately, Mangaman has been retained and is still in the school library.
While the district’s policy includes a formal process for review, it appears that previous attempts to remove controversial materials from school library collections in the district might have been successful through use of a loophole in policy. The section about library materials selection, (Section 5, p. 60), states:
- The complainant shall communicate the concern to the staff member(s) primarily responsible for the use of the materials. The two (2) parties shall make every effort to resolve the concern. The principal or department head may be involved at the request of either party.
- If the matter is not resolved, the complainant may ask the building principal for the Request for the Re-Evaluation of Materials form and a copy and explanation of the Challenged Material Procedure.
The issue here is that “resolve the concern” allows for removal of materials without a formal request being filed. Other materials covered under Section 5 of the policy all have to go through a formal re-evaluation process before they can be removed. Library materials may not have to do so. The phrase “resolve the concern” is too vague, leaving it open to arbitrary decisions by school administrators who are under pressure not to upset the complainant, rock the boat, or generate negative publicity.
When I first read the phrase “resolve the concern,” it didn’t really raise any red flags for me. But then I read the entire section on instructional materials selection and then library materials selection. There is a difference. Because I believe in intellectual freedom and a formal review process for reconsideration of materials, I first perceived that phrase as having a discussion that led to retention of materials. But that was looking at the phrase through my own lens instead of considering that “resolve” could mean “remove.”
The Mangaman situation highlights the need to carefully review district or school policies about both selection and reconsideration of materials. This should be done on a regular basis in order to examine them for loopholes as well as to make sure that policies address changes in materials including format. The Issaquah ISD’s policy is part of the teacher contract and is up for renewal in 2017. Hopefully, this loophole will be addressed during the review process.
The Office for Intellectual Freedom is currently in the process of revising its own guidelines for developing selection policies. Look for an update to come in the future. But if you need help in developing or evaluating your district’s or school’s policy, for now the Workbook for Selection Policy Writing is a good place to begin.
April Dawkins is currently a doctoral candidate in the School of Library and Information Science at the University of South Carolina. Her research focus for her doctoral dissertation is understanding the factors that influence decisions around selection in school libraries and the role of self-censorship. April is part of the NxtWave program funded by an IMLS grant, a national cohort of PhD students whose focus is school librarianship. As a graduate teaching assistant with SLIS, April is teaching Information Literacy and Young Adult Materials. Prior to her doctoral studies, April served for fifteen years as a high school media specialist in North Carolina. She is also a past president of the North Carolina School Library Media Association. April also serves on the Intellectual Freedom committee of the South Carolina Association of School Librarians. Find her on Twitter @aprldwkns.