VUSD’s challenged book policy faces community backlash

(Rigo Moran)

Community members gather at Visalia Unified Board of Education meeting to protest the outcomes made by the district’s challenged book committees for 13 recently challenged books

VISALIA – Various community members turned out to Visalia Unfied’s Board of Education meeting to express their displeasure that committees and the district decided not to ban 13 books that were challenged last month. They also bemoaned the lack of transparency in the process all together.

“This decision is disappointing to many in the community that are very concerned with the sexually explicit content in these books; books that continue to be freely accessible to minors in both the VUSD middle schools and high schools,” community member Crystal Reynolds said during the Tuesday, Oct. 17 meeting.

During public comment, these community members read excerpts from the recently challenged books that they, themselves, considered inappropriate for students. Reynolds, who confirmed at the meeting that she was the community member who challenged the 13 books that were recently put under review, explained she first became concerned when, of the 19 books she initially challenged, only 13 were submitted for review.

Not only that, but from Reynolds’ account, many of the community members were disappointed to hear that the 13 books would remain in the libraries of local high schools and middle schools.

“The policy leaves challengers and concerned citizens without the ability to participate, without representation and with a tremendous lack of transparency,” Reynolds said.

Reynolds took issue with the fact that there are no minutes or public recordings of the meetings of the committees, the fact that the meetings are confidential and – because the committees have four VUSD staff members on each committee – there is doubt that the concerns of community members are being heard.

“How do we know that seven-member committees were actually set up for all 13 books? How do we know that 13 books and excerpts were fully examined, if at all?” Reynolds said. “It is concerning that the policy does not include any participation from that of our elected school board members.”

According to VUSD’s challenged book policy (AR 6163.1), the district’s challenged book committees are made up of seven well-rounded individuals, which consists of appropriate staff – which can be district administrative staff, school-site administrators and/or faculty members – as well as local community members.

Once a book is challenged, VUSD’s superintendent – who is chosen by the elected board of education – or director of Library of Media Services determines if the book must undergo review; if so, a committee is established for each book that is subject to review.

According to VUSD, each committee costs approximately $1,100 to honor the challenged book process. For this round of challenged books, the process cost the distinct approximately $14,000.

Comments from other community members

Matthew Warringtion also shared his concerns during public comment, starting his comment with an excerpt from the book “Out of Darkness,” which describes a father abusing his son and step daughter physically and implies that he sexually abuses his stepdaughter.

“This is what’s in the libraries at the high school,” Warrington said. “I would ask that you do as Crystal asks and change your policy and get rid of these books.”

Another community member, Marilyn Malloy, explained that she was also disappointed that the committees did not remove the books challenged by Reynolds. She explained that she originally encouraged Reynolds to challenge the books, stating that it was a good thing that the school had a policy to ban inappropriate material from the library.

“(I told her) she should engage the process and trust that it would produce the correct result,” Malloy said. “The process has now run its course, and I am now questioning whether or not that was good advice.”

Malloy went on to say that it is hard for her to believe that the material in question was deemed appropriate for kids. She also expressed she found it “curious” that out of the 13 different book committees, not one book was removed from the library.

“Although the district has a clear process for review, the lack of transparency leaves concerned parents and community members with several questions,” Malloy said.

She explained her main concerns regarding the policy were that the school board has little to no say over the outcome of the committees, the lack of transparency and confidentiality of the committees, and the potential lack of representation in the committees.

Malloy did note Erika Hawkyard’s, The Source LGBT+ Center’s program director, presence on two challenged book committees, but said there is no public knowledge of if “the faith community was represented as well.”

However, in accordance with VUSD’s challenged book policy, the identities of committee members are selected from volunteers and their identities are kept confidential – as is the identity of the individuals who decide to challenge a book. 

Hawkyard voluntarily came forward as one of the committee members of the challenged book committees during her previous interview with The Sun-Gazette; Reynolds voluntarily announced her identity as the challenger at the board of education meeting.

For her part on the committees, Hawkyard reviewed the books “Me, Earl and the Dying Girl,” and “The Black Flamingo,” and noted that as someone who works with The Source, she said she believes that her presence on the committees is an indication that the policy is inclusive.

Even further, VUSD public information officer Cristina Gutierrez said in a previous 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.”

In another point made during the meeting’s public comment, community member Cassie Peterson explained she believes removing books from the library is about showing discretion and respecting the community’s values.

“Books are good tools for parents to help teach their children how to behave,” Peterson said. “As parents, we must be vigilant about what our children are exposed to, and their education.”

However, in her past interview with The Sun-Gazette, Hawkyard – who has a Master’s Degree in library and information science and is also a former librarian – explained most children seek out content that is within their maturity level and has characters they can relate to.

Not only that, she also said libraries are democratic institutions where parents, librarians and kids should be able to discuss the needs of the child, as well as figure out what is appropriate for them without making that the standard for all children.

“I think we’re putting responsibility for what is (considered) a parental issue, onto a school library,” Hawkyard said in her previous interview with The Sun-Gazette.

Additionally, according to a previous statement from VUSD, if a parent does not wish for their child to be exposed to any certain material, there is a process that allows the district to accommodate this request without costing the district time and resources to review a challenged book.

Still, many of the community members seem to reiterate that their own wishes to keep these out of the hands of high school students should be community-wide.

An issue of transparency

The parents’ concern that the policy has a lack of transparency might not be completely unfounded when it comes to appealing books that are banned. While the complainant who challenges the book(s) is informed of the committees’ decision on the reviewed titles, the district does not have a policy in place to publicly announce when books are actually banned.

If a person wishes to appeal the decision of the committee – in the case that a 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.

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.

In the event that the committees result in a book being banned, a concerned community who missed the 15 day appeal period would be out of luck since the school district does not have a protocol to reintroduce the banned books back into the library. It should be noted, however, challenged material that is not banned  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.

Start typing and press Enter to search