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Kenai Peninsula’s Dual Book Challenges, Embarrassing School Board Outbursts, and More Censorship News This Week: November 5, 2021

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Before this week’s legion of book challenges and bans, it’s worth reiterating that none of these stories are a lost cause. Certainly, “CRT” has become the political agenda of many right-wing politicians, leveraging it to gain the votes of less-educated white people, who are both victims of and contributors to white supremacy in equal measure. While many in the media are suddenly surprised by this, anyone who has been paying attention has seen this coming for a long time.

You have the tools at hand to make a difference. This anti-censorship toolkit is perfect for those who work in schools and libraries, as well as those who support schools, libraries, and intellectual freedom. There’s also an outstanding resource in the CRT Toolkit, put together by Tasslyn Magnusson, a parent and historian passionate about supporting educators. Judd Legum, a journalist, also highlighted the need for everyone to stay informed of the battles happening on the local level, especially around topics in schools and libraries — these will continue to drive dis- and misinformation campaigns and fuel further political polarization in the coming years.

Onward to a bevy of book challenges this week, with Gender Queer and Lawn Boy still the leading titles. These two titles in particular have been the targets because of the groups Legum mentions above; often, school board meetings are packed with members from these various interest groups and aren’t actually parents in the community.

It’s also absolutely worth reading Maia Kobabe’s response in The Washington Post to eir book Gender Queer being challenged nationwide.

Texas’s Governor Abbott Now On Board 800+ Book Title List School Review

What began as one politician’s attempt to gain attention for himself and his own election campaign has turned into a state-wide demand by Governor Abbott for schools to remove books in collections which include “clearly pornographic images and substance.”

He’s referring to the 800-plus long list of titles submitted to the Texas Education Association by Rep. Matt Krause. Though he doesn’t explicitly cite the list in his letter to the Texas Association of School Boards, Abbott’s request demands schools follow through and report on — and remove — the books included on the list.

From KXAN:

Abbott doesn’t elaborate on instances where this has happened or which books/content are in question, however. KXAN reached out to Abbott’s office for specific examples and will update this article once a response is received.

Instead, he calls on districts to determine the extent to which such materials may exist and “remove them.”

This is a blatant call for censorship. More, Abbott demands schools be more transparent about what books are being included in libraries, and he expects more reporting from the schools about what books are being added to collections.

The 800+ titles on the list include a range of books by or about LGBTQ+ people, books about racism and Black history, and a slew of award-winning, highly decorated titles published explicitly for young readers. Several large districts in the state stated they would not comply with Krause’s original letter, though it’s yet to be seen how they’ll be able to respond to the governor’s demands.

Texas lawmakers, which made abortions after six weeks of pregnancy illegal, are eager to flex their white supremacy muscles even more and eliminating access to books they deem “inappropriate” ensures that history, that culture, and that the realities of the people living in the state are erased.

Meanwhile, the electric grid throughout the state is failing.

Teachers Claim Censorship of LGBTQ+ Books; Parents Raise Funds for Library Amid Controversy in Kenai Peninsula, Alaska

Two separate incidents in the Kenai Peninsula in Alaska raise questions about who or what seeks to remove books featuring queer and diverse characters from the region’s schools and libraries.

First, within the Kenai Penninsula school district, two books with LGBTQ+ themes were under fire. Flight of the Puffin by Ann Braden, being used as a read aloud for two 4th and 5th grade classes, is a book which features gender-nonconforming characters. When the teachers sent home letters to the parents explaining what they were reading aloud, the school’s principal fielded a complaint and shut down the read aloud.

From KDLL:

After a parent complained to the district office, the principal of the school sent an email to parents saying she regretted that the book was read aloud in class, since she reviewed it and decided it was not age or grade appropriate. 

“While the overall theme of the book is acceptance, there are topics that are best left to families to discuss,” the email said. “Our school’s role is to focus on academics, and this book is not approved KPBSD curricular material for instruction.”

The district’s superintendent, though, noted that this incident — the first of two in the district — didn’t limit a teacher’s ability to teach any particular title nor revoke access to it for students (even though that is literally what the principal did).

“We’re not into censorship of any kind and believe in books that promote kindness and tolerance,” [Superintendent Clayton Holland] said. “When it comes to the one you’re talking about, it really involves making sure we know it’s age appropriate. And if there’s any questions about it, making sure parents have an awareness, too.”

And he said the school is taking an immediate pause on the book, not banning it altogether, while it reviews whether it is age appropriate.

The superintendent’s definition of not limiting choice differs from his actual actions, though.

In August, another incident in the school district took aim at several LGBTQ+ materials purchased for the Seward High School library. This time, it was the school’s assistant superintendent, Kari Dendurent, who filed a complaint, demanding the books be “verified” as appropriate for teenagers.

Also from KDLL:

In an email dated Aug. 20, Assistant Superintendent Kari Dendurent told the school secretary she filed a request to recall several titles from the school’s library. The subject line of the email reads “Controversial books sent to Seward High School that need to be verified as appropriate for teens.” 

Titles on the list include “The Gay Liberation Movement,” “Everything You Need to Know About Bisexuality” and “I Am A Feminist,” as well as “We Are Not Yet Equal — Understanding Our Racial Divide,” and “Being Jazz — My Life as a Transgender Teen.”

In the email, Dendurent asked the school secretary to retrieve books on the list if they had already been checked out by students.

The books were returned to the library shelves in October, and a personnel complaint was filed against Dendurent.

In one spot of bright news with this story, the teachers’ association president has had the backs of the teachers — and the students — since the beginning.

Teachers’ association president Nathan Erfurth said both instances violate the due process for reviewing instructional materials. He said the teachers’ association filed a complaint about the situation at the library and are in conversation with the district about the incident at K-Beach.

“Ultimately, what we’re looking for is accountability and making sure that our school district follows its own policies,” he said.

[…]

Erfurth said he’s particularly concerned that the books that were called back centered around LGBTQ characters and themes, since there have been several reported instances of bullying of transgender and queer students in Kenai Peninsula schools.

“The problem right now, the thing that makes me concerned, is there is one demographic here that is starting to see some strange decisions that the district is making,” he said. “And we want to make sure that we don’t let that continue.”

While this has been happening at the school district, another challenge has been brewing at the local public library in the same community.

The Kenai Public Library received a Collection Equity Award grant worth $1500 from the Network of the National Library of Medicine. The grant, meant to cover the purchase of materials relating to mental health, books about Medicare and Medicaid, suicide prevention, self-care, and similar topics, was rejected by the library board October 20. The board demanded a list of titles to be purchased, despite the fact that the library’s annual materials budget or purchases aren’t called into question.

Among the reasons cited for the grant deferral? The possibility of COVID-related titles, and more pressingly, the fact the grant had the word “equity” in its name.

From Anchorage Daily News:

“Are there any COVID titles?” asked Sharon Efta of Kenai.

Wolfe replied she didn’t have a complete list of titles yet, but what she did have didn’t include any COVID-19 titles.

“I think it’s irresponsible to just blanket rubber stamp something that you don’t know anything about,” Efta then told council members.

Dave Peck of Kenai said he took particular issue with the term “equity,” used in the name of the award, and asked if the grant would be “enhancing some sort of a federal agenda which would not necessarily represent the views of the people of Kenai.”

“I think equity can create division,” Peck said.

Council member Teea Winger said she was concerned about the funding of the grant, and member Jim Glendenning asked whether they could postpone accepting the grant until the council could see an inventory of the proposed purchases.

The good news?

Residents were not having this and took up a GoFundMe to raise the funds for the library themselves. Their goal of $1500 — to match the grant — went much further. The organizers, Sovala Kisena and Todd Smith, both of the Peninsula, readjusted their goal to $5000 when they met the initial.

As of writing, the GoFundMe has raised nearly $16,000 for the library.

From the Peninsula Clarion:

GoFundMe organizers Sovala Kisena and Todd Smith, both of the central peninsula, said Tuesday that the fundraiser was meant to be a way to take positive action in response to the council’s decision to postpone the grant.

“It’s the definition of censorship … and it bothered me,” Smith said.

[…]

“It’s good to see the community come together on a topic that’s important,” Kisena said.

Financial donations to the library received through the GoFundMe account will be given to the Friends of the Kenai Community Library, which can then donate the funds to the library. Kenai City Manager Paul Ostrander said Tuesday that the city council will still need to approve funds donated from the Friends of the Kenai Library to the library.

[…]

“I love our library,” Heidi Kellar, who donated $25, wrote on the GoFundMe site. “Thank you for the opportunity to support your work.”

“Suppression is politically unacceptable,” another commenter, Shawn Haskin, who donated $50, wrote on the page.

Wolfe said Tuesday that several people have reached out either to the library or to her directly since the last Kenai City Council meeting to voice both their concern about the council’s actions and their support for the library.

“We’ve had some talks about intellectual freedom and what it means to have a (library) collection that’s there for everyone,” Wolfe said of the conversations she’s had with people who reached out.

[…]

The list of contributors includes Kenai City Council members Glenese Pettey and Henry Knackstedt, Kenai City Manager Paul Ostrander, Kenai City Clerk Jamie Heinz, former Kenai City Council candidate Alex Douthit, Soldotna City Council members Justin Ruffridge and Dan Nelson and former Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Mike Navarre, and several Kenai Peninsula Borough employees, among others.

What’s most noteworthy in this story and worth reiterating is that the community stepped up and said they won’t have information suppression happen. Where politicians and a small, but vocal, group of residents raise concerns that align with clear political agendas — in the case of the school district and the library, anti-LGBTQ+ beliefs, as well as anti-science beliefs — the community pushed back. Those voices are much larger, but because they’re not as loud nor making as many bold, fear-mongering proclamations, it’s harder to see the big picture.

The bulk of Kenai Peninsula residents support the whole of their community and those seeking to suppress access to books are the outliers.

Waukee, Iowa, Now-Defeated School Board Candidate Wanted Check Out Records of Students

Chances are, the crusades will continue, but the good news is none of the candidates running for Waukee School Board on an agenda of anti-mask, anti-“CRT,” and anti-LGBTQ stances were elected.

The Waukee School District removed three books from Northwest High School in late October, following a complaint from a non-parent about the pornographic nature of those books. Anyone following the news will be unsurprised by the three titles in question.

From Axios Des Moines:

Community member Amanda McClanahan, who is not a parent in the school district, read sexually explicit excerpts from the books during Monday night’s school board meeting, and condemned district leaders for having them on shelves.

[…]

McClanahan claimed the books were allowed in under the “guise of equality and equity” that’s pushed by the school board.

“Can you tell me — does equity and inclusion also include incestuous relationships, child-adult sex and books that promote pedophilia?”

The standard talking points were used as the platform for a slate of school board candidates in the district, including Vin Thaker, who said one of his top priorities when elected would be to find out who the students were that checked out these titles and then he’d inform their parents. Further, the librarians would need to “answer to” the board for their purchases.

Again: this slate of candidates lost, but there’s yet to be an update on the status of the books in the school.

This should serve as a dire reminder to any library or educator to not keep records of the students (or adults) who borrow materials. It’s a dangerous action and could harm the lives. Readers have a right to privacy and in libraries, it’s part of the Library Bill of Rights to protect that privacy. Many ILS systems automatically purge records, so ensure yours does, and if it doesn’t — or you don’t use an ILS system — now is the time to develop a means to truly protect reader privacy (especially for minors).

In Short

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