On September 29, Superintendent of Schools Thomas Scarice wrote this letter to the Westport Board of Education, about the “Banned Books Week” issue:
On September 25, the Board of Education and district administration began to receive inquiries regarding the “Banned Books Week” display in the Staples High School Library. In order to respond on behalf of the Board, I have met with faculty and administration at Staples to gather accurate information. I have also reviewed the appropriate Board policies.
I intend for this communication to be provided to the Board, but also forwarded to the public inquiries that have been received as it should answer most, if not all, questions raised.
This communication is broken down into the following sections. Below is a summary of the:
- relevant Westport Board of Education policies (as an aside, the Board will receive information related to First Amendment, federal, state law and legal precedents from Board Counsel)
- materials selection process
- “Banned Books Week” Display – finding of facts
- other critical considerations
- steps in process to challenge materials
Relevant Westport Board of Education Policies
The two most relevant Board policies related to instructional materials, and challenges to materials, are
Policy/Regulation 1312.1 (Challenged Material) and Policy/Regulation 6161 (Instructional Materials Selection)
Policy/Regulation 1312.1 (Challenged Material) provides that, consistent with 10-221(b),
“[a]dministrators, librarians, and teachers are responsible for the selection of appropriate educational material in accordance with the guidelines set forth in the Board of Education Policy #3410.” Policy 6161 has replaced Policy 3410. Policy 1312.1 also sets forth complaint procedures for handling objections to materials.
Policy/Regulation 6161 (Instructional Materials Selection) provides that, consistent with 10-221(b),
“[u]ltimate responsibility for the instructional materials used in Westport town schools rests with the Board of Education which delegates the selection of materials to the Superintendent and the professional staff. It is the responsibility of the Superintendent and the staff to adopt and purchase those instructional materials which they believe will do the best job of carrying out the educational goals and objectives set by the Westport Board of Education.”
Policy 6161 also establishes the following:
- “Purpose and Responsibilities” statement:
○ The purpose of education remains what it has always been in a free society: to develop free and reasoning human beings who can think for themselves, who understand their own and to some extent, other cultures, who lives compassionately and cooperatively with others, who respect both themselves and others, who has developed self-discipline and self-motivation and exercises both; to teach them the basic skills; and to give them that foundation of knowledge needed by responsible and productive citizens.
In selecting instructional materials for young people, teachers and librarians consider the
contribution that the materials may make to the education of the student, their aesthetic value, honesty, appropriateness, and suitability to the developmental goal of a group of students or of an individual student. Teachers, however, may use different works for different purposes. Choosing materials to be used by an entire class is somewhat different from choosing materials to be used by small groups or by individuals in a media center. The continuing concern, commitment, and action by teachers, administrators, school boards, professional organizations, students, and the citizenry can insure the reality of academic freedom in a changing society.
- Guidelines for the selection of all materials used in the Westport Public Schools, ○ Materials selected will:
■ enrich and support the curriculum
■ stimulate growth in factual knowledge, literary appreciation, aesthetic values, and ethical standards
■ provide a background of information which enables pupils to make intelligent judgments in their daily lives
■ provide a wide variety of views on issues so that young citizens may develop, under guidance, the practice of critical analysis of all media, and may recognize that differing viewpoints are valuable and to be welcomed, for out of them may come the synthesis of a new idea
■ be representative of the many religious, ethnic, and cultural groups and their contributions to our American heritage and to world cultures
■ reflect the variety of roles individuals may play within the context of society, irrespective of origin or sex
■ place principle above personal opinion and reason above prejudice
■ be appropriate to the varied interests, abilities, and levels of maturity of students in form, structure, and content
■ be based upon critical review in educational and professional journals, in current periodicals, or through professional analysis
- Recognition that materials may meet some, or one, of the criteria above:
- “No one item or piece of educational material is expected to meet all of the above criteria.”
- Specific “guidelines for the selection of all materials used in the Westport Public Schools.”:
- overall purpose
○ timeliness or permanence
○ importance of the subject matter
○ quality of the writing/production
○ readability and literary quality
○ authority and/or significance of the author/artist/composer/producer
○ format, durability and price
○ teachers’, students’ and parents’ suggestions and recommendations
- An overarching value of continuous review of material selections
- “Material selection is more than a process of material acquisition: it involves a process of continuous review of instructional materials. Administrators and teachers will regularly review procedures to assure the currency and adequacy of their materials collections.”
- Complaint procedures for handling objections to materials
- It is important to note that an appeal to the Board of Education is “Step 9” in the process of challenging materials.
- The complaint form to be used by those wishing to challenge certain materials, “Request for Reconsideration of Materials”
Clearly, there are significant policy guardrails for the Board to consider with regards to book challenges and subsequent actions/responses. Board Counsel will provide further parameters related to the First Amendment, federal/state law, and legal precedents.
Materials Selection Process
The district has been asked how materials are selected for our school libraries. In addition to following the specific “guidelines for the selection of all materials used in the Westport Public Schools” listed above in BOE Policy 6161, after conducting interviews this week with faculty and administrators, I learned our librarians are largely informed by the following six resources in selecting materials:
- Reviews of any newly published books, particularly if a book is reviewed highly by multiple sources.
- Reviews of professional resources, the book award lists, and professional organizations, including targeted ages for books and materials:
- School Library Journal (SLJ)
○ A monthly magazine with articles and reviews for school librarians, media specialists, and public librarians who work with young people
○ Book reviews for public libraries and school libraries, and the recommendations for student book clubs
○ Sponsored by the American Library Association (ALA)
- Follett Titlewave
○ Ability to quickly locate educationally relevant content to support learning.
○ Follett also owns the library automation software Destiny, the district’s library software platform
- The Horn Book Magazine
○ The oldest bimonthly magazine dedicated to reviewing children’s literature
- Teacher Librarian
○ A leading journals designed specifically for librarians working with K-12 students as well as classroom teachers and administrators
Supplemental “Industry Standard” Resources
- New York Times Book Reviews
- NPR Book Reviews
- Publishers Weekly
○ A weekly trade news magazine targeted at publishers, librarians, booksellers, and literary agents
- National Book Award List
- CT Nutmeg Award List
- ALA Notable Children’s Book List ● ALA Youth Media Awards including:
- Alex Awards (Book, Print & Media Awards)
- May Hill Arbuthnot Honor Lecture Award (Grants)
- Mildred L. Batchelder Award (Book, Print & Media Awards)
- Pura Belpré Award (Book, Print & Media Awards)
- Randolph Caldecott Medal (Book, Print & Media Awards)
- Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Children’s Video (HISTORICAL) (Book, Print & Media Awards)
- Children’s Literature Legacy Award (Book, Print & Media Awards)
- Margaret A. Edwards Award (Book, Print & Media Awards)
- Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults (Book, Print & Media Awards)
- Theodor Seuss Geisel Award (Book, Print & Media Awards)
- Coretta Scott King Book Awards (Book, Print & Media Awards)
- Coretta Scott King – Virginia Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement (Professional Recognition)
- Coretta Scott King – John Steptoe Award for New Talent (Book, Print & Media Awards)
- William C. Morris Debut YA Award (Book, Print & Media Awards)
- John Newbery Medal (Book, Print & Media Awards)
- Odyssey Award for Excellence in Audiobook Production (Book, Print & Media Awards)
- Michael L. Printz Award (Book, Print & Media Awards)
- Schneider Family Book Award (Book, Print & Media Awards)
- ALA (American Library Association)
- AASL (American Association of School Librarians)
- CASL (Connecticut Association of School Librarians)
- Student/Parent Requests:
○ If a student or parent requests a book, the librarians look up reviews on the request and if it meets the standards outlined in BOE 6161, the book is purchased.
- Teacher Requests:
○ If a teacher requests a book for their curriculum, the librarians purchase the book.
○ It is the expectation of the school librarians that individual teachers conduct the materials evaluation for their own course materials.
- Librarian Networks:
○ If librarians are made aware of a book from a library colleague or from a workshop they have personally attended (i.e. ALA, AASL, CASL conference), and if it meets the standards outlined in 6161, the book is purchased.
- CT Nutmeg Awards Program:
○ If a book is recognized in May as part of the CT Nutmeg Awards program, the book is purchased for our students to participate in the reading and voting process.
In addition, we have been asked the following about the materials selection process:
- Are librarians required to read all new books selected and purchased?
○ No. It is not possible to read all of the books in a timely manner. The district purchases hundreds of books each year. Our librarians consistently read throughout the year, however, it is not possible for librarians to read every book that is requested or purchased. That is why they rely on the list of resources above to inform practice.
- Does the district prohibit certain types of books, content, or materials? ○ Books are not purchased if the are:
■ Of poor quality or production
■ Are not of good literary quality (as evidenced through any posted reviews, or lack of reviews)
■ Are outdated in content, use, or accuracy
■ Encourage inappropriate stereotypes, or bias
■ Pornography (it is important to have legal counsel further expand on the legal definition of the word “pornography” as there are implications for the Board to consider)
■ Middle and elementary levels do not purchase adult-rated trade books, yet there is a “professional section” in every library for teachers
“Banned Books Week Display”: Finding of Facts
Questions and concerns were raised, beginning on September 25, about the Staples High School Library “Banned Books Week”. I have provided the following information to address the questions below that have been received.
Background Information on the Staples High School Library “Banned Books Week Display”
- The recognition of “Banned Books Week” has been displayed annually in the SHS library since 2005.
- This event (September 18-24, 2022) is not the creation of WPS librarians.
- This event is sponsored by the ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom. The stated purpose is:
○ “Banned Books Week is an annual event celebrating the freedom to read. Banned Books Week was launched in 1982 in response to a sudden surge in the number of challenges to books in schools, bookstores and libraries. Typically held during the last week of September, it highlights the value of free and open access to information. Banned Books Week brings together the entire book community (librarians, booksellers, publishers, journalists, teachers, and readers of all types) in shared support of the freedom to seek and to express ideas, even those some consider unorthodox or unpopular, an annual celebration of the freedom to read”
- The books on display in the SHS library were not chosen by SHS librarians. Each year the books on display are provided by the ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom, as these books are rated as the Top Ten most challenged books nationally in the prior year.
- The ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom provides the district with promotional materials for this event. The librarians annually supplement the displays with other promotional materials.
- There were two displays:
○ Posters in the hallway on the way to the cafeteria with pictures of the ten book covers ○ The library display with the ten books, closed with their book covers facing outward.
- The displays were pulled at the end of the week recognizing this event, as they have been annually since 2005.
- The next display is on “digital citizenship”
- Last year (2021) the librarians only displayed 9 of the 10 books on the top 10 list since one book was an elementary book and it was not in stock at SHS
- If one of the top 10 most challenged books on the list is in stock in the SHS library, the librarians have annually displayed it as part of this event
- This year, the SHS library has all ten of the top 10 most challenged books and displayed all ten
- Of the ten displayed this year, all were purchased at some point between 2008-2019, meaning all of these books have been in the SHS library for 3-14 years
- None of the books on display have been recent purchases or were purchased for this display
- Three of the 2022 top 10 most challenged books were on the list last year. The 2021 display was mostly focused on racial issues.
- None of these books serve as a primary reading text for any class, they are in the library collection and available for students and faculty. However,
- Four copies of “This Book is Gay” was purchased for the Junior Health class as an option ○ All juniors must read a health related topical book of their choice during the course.
○ Books are exclusively student choice in this course after they are provided with a book talk by the school librarian
Other Questions Related to “Banned Books Week”:
- Who prepared the “Banned Books Week” display?
○ The recognition of “Banned Books Week” has been displayed annually in the SHS library since 2005.
○ This event (September 18-24, 2022) is not the creation of WPS librarians, but the same event the school has hosted for 17 years.
○ It is an event sponsored by the ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom.
○ As has been done for 17 years, the display was constructed by the Staples librarians with promotional materials provided by the ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom
- What process was followed for this display?
○ The same process that has been implemented for the past 17 years.
○ Promotional materials were provided by the ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom
○ The librarians supplemented with additional materials
○ The ten book titles were provided by the ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom as these were rated the ten most challenged books of 2021
○ The book covers were displayed, unopened, in the library display and posters were displayed in the hallway near the cafe.
- Why these particular books
○ The ten book titles were provided by the ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom as these were rated the ten most challenged books of 2021
○ Each year the ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom provides the list of books to display for “Banned Books Week”
- Why not include other books, such as Abigail Shrier’s “Irreversible Damage” in the Staples High School library collection?
○ Teacher, student, and parent requests for additions to the library collection are part of the process for materials selection
○ Any teacher, student or parent with a request can submit that request to the school librarian and the librarian will review the book based on the criteria and process listed above
○ Librarians seek to identify the protagonist/antagonist to help determine if the book will likely be of interest to students. This is not the only criteria, but it is useful.
○ “Irreversible Damage” is a parenting book, and there is a parenting section in the SHS library
- What about books that have been banned like “To Kill A Mockingbird”?
○ To be clear, “To Kill A Mockingbird” was not banned. I have provided the Board with a 7 page memorandum related to the decision making process behind the curricular change. ○ I have attached that memo to this message
- Have books been removed in the past when concerns have been raised?
○ The last formal challenge was in 2007 when the book, “Lovely Bones” was challenged. This information is based on recollection of current faculty.
○ Two incidents at elementary schools were recalled by faculty when I asked this question:
■ At one elementary school, a parent raised a concern about a book having an antiquated and insensitive depiction of Asian Americans. The librarian reviewed the book and concluded that this was an accurate criticism and removed the book.
■ At another elementary school, a concern was raised due to language more reflective of teenagers than elementary children. This book was also reviewed by the librarian and transferred to the middle school level.
Other Critical Considerations
To pursue the consideration of book removal, or other modifications to library books (i.e. separate section for identified books, “tagging” books for specific material, etc.), I recommend that the Board contemplate the following questions and considerations:
If This Book, Then Why Not That Book?
In short, further distinctions ought to be made if the books in question are acted upon by the Board. Those distinctions should further inform any actions (i.e. policy changes), but must align with the legal (forthcoming from Board Counsel) and policy implications above. Board policy can change to reflect additional guidance in materials selection for faculty, but I caution the Board about First Amendment implications and other legal precedents. Without question, our legal counsel can provide the appropriate direction for the Board if there is an inclination to make further distinctions that inform a criteria for book removal, “tagging”, etc.
However, I feel obligated to inform the Board of practical implications, as well as relevant norms in modern high school libraries.
In a swift search I personally found five titles that are currently in the SHS library, trade books and graphic novels, that contain similar content to the three books in question (“Gender Queer”, “Lawn Boy” and “This Book is Gay”). I’m quite certain there are more books in our library with similar content and a trained librarian could surface additional findings.
The following titles have all been in our library for years, some for more than ten years. These books include textual depictions, and graphic representations, of oral sex, intercourse, rape, and frontal nudity. These books include:
- “Looking for Alaska” (Green, 2005)
- “Empire of Storms” (Maas, 2005)
- “Lighter Than My Shadow” (Green 2013)
- “Speak the Graphic Novel” (Anderson, 1999)
- “Watchmen” (Moore, 1986)
In addition, the library contains books, trade books, graphic novels, etc., with explicit violence, as well as books with the “N” word. I share this as distinctions are important if faculty and the administration are to be informed by Board policy.
Action on any of the three books in question (“Gender Queer”, “Lawn Boy” and “This Book is Gay”) would inevitably warrant consideration for other titles (such as the five listed above and others) based on the distinction made by the Board. The SHS library currently has a collection totaling 23,779 print books and 4,491 eBooks, audio books, and magazines. The three books in question were purchased on the following dates:
- “Gender Queer” – 7/1/2019
- “Lawn Boy” – 3/11/2019
- “This Book is Gay” – 11/2/2015
These titles have been in our library for 3-6 years. They have experienced low circulation to this point. However, it is my responsibility to point out the practical implications of policy changes. This by no means precludes the Board from making policy changes, but it adds additional context to the consequential nature of Board action.
When the Board is contemplating any actions, modifications, etc., it is important to be mindful of relevant norms of the modern high school. Perhaps of interest to the Board and community, is that the three books in question in the “Banned Books Week” display, and the five I surfaced in my cursory search above, are in the libraries of the following high schools (some have all of the titles, others have some of the titles):
- Darien High School
- Wilton High School
- Scarsdale High School
- Greenwich High School
- Ridgefield High School
- Weston High School
- Fairfield Warde High School
- Roger Ludlowe High School (Fairfield)
- Joel Barlow High School (Easton/Redding)
- Amity High School
- Avon High School
- Simsbury High School
- Conard High School (West Hartford)
- Hall High School (West Hartford)
- Stamford High School
Norms are relevant to the Board when considering action. Our legal counsel can inform the Board as to any legal implications of norms, if any.
The Board may want to consider the questions that follow as they contemplate this topic. Some questions for consideration include:
- Is there a difference between text and graphical representations in material?
- Is there a difference between what books and materials should populate a school library, as opposed to a town public library?
- What relevant norms should be considered?
- Is additional distinction necessary between materials used for an entire class, for small groups, on display, or housed in a collection?
Steps in Process to Challenge Materials
From the information I’ve gathered up until 12:00pm, Friday September 30, it appears that the district has received 9 formal challenges in the form of the “Request for Reconsideration of Materials” document per Board Policy #6161, covering 8 titles. One additional form challenges all books on display in the “Banned Books Week” display. For informational purposes, and the necessity to follow Board policy, the following process will be implemented:
- The complainant will identify him/herself and the specific nature of the complaint.
- The complainant will talk to the educator(s) involved, seeking resolution of the issue and the educator(s) shallreport same to the building Principal, including the resolution thereof, if any.
- The complainant will file, failing satisfactory resolution, a formal written complaint on the form entitled, “Requestfor Reconsideration of Materials” (available from the building Principal.)
- The building Principal will seek resolution with the complainant and the educator(s) involved on the basis of thewritten complaint.
- If the issue remains unresolved, the building Principal will submit the complaint to the Chairperson of theSuperintendent’s Review Committee (SRC) who will be appointed by the Superintendent at that time.
The committee will consist of:
- a member of the Superintendent’s immediate staff;
- the WEA president or designee;
- the IAA president or designee;
- no fewer than three classroom teachers, representing level and department or specialization germane to the complaint, and one librarian/media specialist who will be appointed jointly by the Superintendent and the president of the WEA. If good faith efforts by the Superintendent and the president of the WEA to agree on these appointments shall fail after a reasonable period of time, the Superintendent shall make these appointments to the committee; ● three citizens, to be appointed by the Superintendent.
- The Chairperson will schedule a hearing of the SRC with the parties to the complaint:
- the educator(s) involved in the complaint on matters relevant to the selection and educational use of the material in question.
- the complainant on matters relevant to the material in question and on its educational use.
- The SRC will render an evaluative judgment and recommendation, in writing, to the Superintendent.
- Within ten days of receiving the SRC’s recommendation, the Superintendent will render a disposition, in writing,to the parties involved in the complaint.
- Complainant or educator(s) desiring to appeal the Superintendent’s disposition to the Board of Education mustdo so within 30 days of the date on which the Superintendent rendered the decision.
- Challenged materials, once judged appropriate, shall be reviewed, if challenged again, only if theSuperintendent determines that circumstances so warrant.
In my role as superintendent, my obligation is to serve the Board in contemplating policy. I raise questions, share information, make recommendations, and act at the pleasure of the Board. I do this in the pursuit of ethically serving our children, while acting within the constraints of law and policy. My personal interpretations of this topic, and others like it, are immaterial as I formally serve in a licensed role as the Superintendent of Schools. That said, it is a challenge at times, yet I want to assure the Board that I will provide my best professional opinion while serving in this formal capacity.
I am confident that the information provided in the following sections above (i.e. relevant Westport BOE Policies, materials selection process, “Banned Books Week” Display – finding of facts, other critical considerations, and steps in process to challenge materials) will answer most, perhaps not all, of the questions posed, while assisting the Board in contemplating any possible actions.