Book committees opt to retain 13 books in VUSD libraries

(Rigo Moran)

Visalia Unified School District’s challenged book committees deem 13 challenged books appropriate to remain in high school libraries

VISALIA – Visalia Unified School District’s challenged book committees have decided to keep 13 recently challenged books in the district’s high school libraries; however, had any of the books been banned, the policy on this process doesn’t allow an avenue to appeal the ban and reintroduce the title.

The district created 13 committees to review and evaluate how appropriate the content of 13 books is for high school students in schools under VUSD’s jurisdiction. These books were submitted for review by a single community member, whose identity is anonymous in accordance with VUSD policy.

However, following book reviews by the district’s challenged book committees, all of the books were approved to remain in school libraries after the books were deemed appropriate for high school students.

“The book review committees voted to keep each listed book in our school libraries,” VUSD internal auditor Axel Kondoh said in an emailed statement to The Sun-Gazette.

The 13 books challenged at VUSD were: “Last Night at the Telegraph Club” by Malinda Lo; “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” by Sherman Alexie; “Speak” by Laurie Halse Anderson; “Out of Darkness“ by Ashley Hope Perez; “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison; “Breathless” Jennifer Niven; “Perks of Being a Wallflower” by Stephen Chbosky; “I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter” by Erika Sánchez; “Me Earl & the Dying Girl” by Jesse Andrews; “Darius the Great Deserves Better” by Adib Khorram; “The Black Flamingo” by Dean Atta; “Looking for Alaska” by John Green; and “This One Summer” by Mariko Tamaki.

There is no confirmation as to why these 13 books were challenged. However, some common themes that can be identified in this list of books include crude language, racism, depictions of abuse and sexually explicit scenarios, among other things. Additionally, eight of the books have content with LGBTQ+ representation in them.

Six of the titles that were challenged at VUSD are also included in the American Library Association’s (ALA) list of the 13 most banned books in the nation for 2022 – titles that were all celebrated by libraries across the nation amid National Banned Book Week, which started on Oct. 2 and ended on Oct. 7.

“From my perspective, this is a whole national thing that’s been going on; challenging books,” VUSD public information officer Cristina Gutierrez said in an interview with The Sun-Gazette. “I think we’re (VUSD) in a unique situation, where we’re definitely including community members to be a part of that discussion.”

VUSD’s policy on challenged book

At Visalia Unified School District, a book is considered “challenged” when it has content community members take issue with, such as lewd topics or inappropriate behaviors not deemed suitable for students.

“We just want the process to be used appropriately,” Gutierrez said. “(VUSD) is really making sure that we’re not infringing on students’ rights.”

Once a book has been challenged, whether by a community member, parent, school staff member or even by a student, it is then submitted for review and assigned to a challenged book committee. VUSD’s superintendent or designee determines if a review committee is necessary to review the complaint against the title, according to the policy (AR 6163.1).

For VUSD, this designee is the district’s director of Library Media Services. If the superintendent or designee determines a book must undergo review, then a review committee of at least seven people is put together for the title; the committee(s) consists of appropriate staff – which can be district administrative staff, school-site administrators and faculty members – and local community members.

According to the district, these seven individuals are well-rounded and must have the time available to read and discuss the book. After their readings and discussions, they determine whether or not the book needs to be restricted from students and deliver their decision to the superintendent or designee.

“This is a good process that is intended to alert the school district of books that are truly inappropriate for all students,” VUSD said in an emailed statement to The Sun-Gazette.

To challenge a book, a person must submit a request form asking the individual to explain their reasonings behind bringing this book into question. According to VUSD, this practice is meant to remove content that is considered inappropriate for all students and not to remove content that differs from the beliefs of parents.

This policy was officially adopted in March 2023. However, it was noted that the district has practiced a similar protocol for many years. This new process was formally added to the district’s policy as a formality to ensure alignment with staff changes, according to VUSD’s statement; and when the process is had, it comes with a price tag.

According to VUSD, getting a committee together to review reading materials cost the district at least $1,100 in expenses. The school district confirmed the price associated with putting these 13 book committees cost over $14,000. The money goes towards providing the books and building the committee(s).

There are other ways for parents to keep their children from reading specific materials without challenging a title and subjecting it to review, however.

“If parents wish their child not be exposed to any certain material, there is a process for this that does not cost our district time and resources,” VUSD said.

According to Gutierrez, when parents do not want their children to read certain materials, the school district will honor their decision and prohibit that child from checking out those books at the library. But if an individual believes the book is not appropriate for all students, they then have the option to challenge the title.

VUSD noted in its statement that the books in its school libraries were picked by district library media staff in accordance with law, board policy, administrative regulation and professional selection aids and standards. They also take recommendations from administrators, teachers, other staff, parents/guardians and students whenever it’s appropriate.

How would anyone know?

This district has had protocol in place for many years, and thus fair, its policies have never resulted in the challenged books being banned. However, in the event that the committees result in a book being banned, the school district does not have a protocol to reintroduce the book back into the library.

If a person wishes to appeal the decision of the committee – in the case that the committee did ban a challenged book – they have 15 days to write an appeal to VUSD’s Division of Learning and Leadership, and another process will follow from there.

However, there is no policy in place that requires VUSD to announce when books are actually banned. The only way the community would know what books are available at schools would be by looking for them on the school’s online catalog. This would make appealing the decision to ban books within the required 15 school days difficult.

It should be noted, however, that the removal of the challenged material can be revisited after 12 months of the determination being made.

“When any challenged material is reviewed by the district, it shall not be subject to further reconsideration for 12 months,” VUSD’s policy (AR 6163.1) states.

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