One Parent Got 444 Books Removed from a Wisconsin School District

Kelly Jensen


Kelly is a former librarian and a long-time blogger at STACKED. She's the editor/author of (DON'T) CALL ME CRAZY: 33 VOICES START THE CONVERSATION ABOUT MENTAL HEALTH and the editor/author of HERE WE ARE: FEMINISM FOR THE REAL WORLD. Her next book, BODY TALK, will publish in Fall 2020. Follow her on Instagram @heykellyjensen.

In what might be the single largest book challenge to date, one parent submitted complaints about 444 books in Elkhorn Area School District (EASD) in southern Wisconsin. Due to a policy approved in November 2021 with no comment from the board, all of the books were removed from shelves. The policy states that any complaint automatically gets a book removed from shelves while it undergoes the review process.

The district has been working to put some titles back on shelves since they were pulled earlier this month, and the policy is being revisited in the next school board meeting.

This story is one that perfectly illustrates the marriage of how bad actors can manipulate bad policy in order to create chaos while wasting significant amounts of time, money, and energy for public institutions and taxpayers. The challenge in EASD managed to not only get all of those books pulled from shelves without objection by herself, she did so using a form that is not one developed by the school district but was manipulated to look like an official district document.

The Policy

Per the 2021 policy in EASD, materials objections must come “in writing, specifically detailing materials involved, objections thereto, reasons therefore, and recommendations, may be filed by any adult citizen and/or parent/guardian of an open enrolled student of the District with the principal of the appropriate school.” This is not what the challenger did. She used a form complaint, not an official form for the district but affixed the district’s logo on it to look official. She did not specifically detail anything in her complaint, which deliberately misrepresenting the form as one from the district. It’s not. The district has no form.

Here’s the submitted form used by the parent complainant, Melissa Bollinger, whose name you can read on the form itself. You can see the EASD logo at the top of the image:

Complaint form used in EASD.

It is unclear the provenance of this particular form–many chapters of groups like Moms For Liberty, which operates in several counties adjacent to Elkhorn, as well as No Left Turn in Education and others, have sample forms for use–though Ms. Bollinger has found or edited this one to be specific to Wisconsin statutes.

What is clear is that even though she did not follow district procedure for a complaint and indeed, falsely applied the district logo to it, the district went ahead and pulled the challenged 444 books from the middle and high schools.

EASD’s book review policy puts the power into the hands of principals. Once a challenge is lodged and the book removed, per the 2021 policy, then the principal reviews it. But they aren’t required to used professional review sources in the same way that their professional library workers do when purchasing material. According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the principals “are directed to use Common Sense Media, Barnes and Noble and Amazon.com in their reviews.”

Meanwhile, for Media specialists, the policy articulates they “make extensive use of reputable, unbiased, professionally prepared selection aids and shall seek the advice of professional staff members in selection of all materials.”

The policy is weak and easy to take advantage of. Before it is reviewed by the board, nothing stops other individuals from submitting 444 complaints and triggering the process again; indeed, Ms. Bollinger herself could do it. Nothing in here protects the students nor the parents who may not agree with Ms. Bollinger’s interpretation of Wisconsin statutes or the appropriateness of content in the books.

What the policy does do though, is specifically address the kinds of materials that were wholesale pulled for review:

Special consideration shall be given to the following areas where criticism
frequently arises:

  1. Material on religious subjects should be available and should be factual,
    unbiased, and broadly representative.
  2. Factual material on an appropriate reading level should be available
    concerning those political ideologies which exert strong influence on
    government, education, and other phases of our society.
  3. A searching evaluation of the merits (literary quality, truth to life, relevance
    to the curriculum) is necessitated by those materials which include
    profanity, violence or frank treatment of sex.

That the policy was last updated with this provision to pull books upon a challenge was implemented in 2021 is worth a pause. Book banning was hitting its big stride at that time.

The Books

What’s within the 444 books being challenged by Ms. Bollinger? It’s exactly what you’d expect–many of the titles are those you find on Moms For Liberty’s BookLooks and No Left Turn in Education’s Rated Books. She even includes links to the ‘”reviews” from those sites as “proof” of them being inappropriate–she illustrates how instead of doing any work to review the titles for herself, she relies on the “expertise” of groups with a blatantly biased agenda.

There are hundreds more books, too, beyond those lists, ranging from well-known classics such as Grapes of Wrath, The Life of Pi, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, and more. It is a broad swath of contemporary titles and classics.

Nearly half of the list are books that have not yet been banned in other districts across the country. You can access the entire list here.

District officials state that most of the books are back on shelves already, without having gone through the formal review process. Prior to this challenge, two book challenges resulted in books being moved from the middle school to the high school in the last 11 years. No information about what books have been returned or formally reviewed has been released. There is also no information about what books will be reviewed nor the process the district plans to take to make those determinations. The policy has put them in a trap where whatever decision they make has them harming the First Amendment Rights of one or several vested parties.

It is concerning to think about how this list might become influential in future challenges, too–that’s been the case with Moms and No Left Turn.

Time and Taxpayer Money

Wisconsin is one of the few states with open enrollment, meaning that students can attend any public school their parents wish within the state. Those with more means can send their students to “better off” districts–that can impact the funding levels of those districts which do or do not see enrollment increases.

While that is not the story here, it’s worth bringing up because so much of the fight over “inappropriate” books has been to create a story about taxpayer money being wasted and to help destabilize these publicly-funded institutions. A parental complaint sets off a review in a district, which can cost hundreds if not thousands or tens of thousands of dollars. This is then parlayed by book banners as “waste,” despite the fact they initiated the review.

In EASD, a challenge of 444 books, were they to be reviewed by principals per policy, would easily result in hundreds of thousands of dollars being spent on the process, if not more. Of course, since the policy as written means books are removed for review, the cost of the actual materials is not incurred by the district. Were the books part of the cost, it would skyrocket even higher. Estimating a two-hour timeframe to review each challenged book, that’s 888 hours, or the equivalent of 37 full days.

The point of these challenges is to do just this: waste substantial time, money, and energy.

EASD’s book challenger has been a public advocate for school board elections on her personal Facebook page. She pushed for the election of Adam Andre last April, who won a seat on the EASD board and who has addressed the challenge on his public Facebook page. It should come as little surprise at this point he uses the same “not a book ban” rhetoric as book banners do, even though removing books from shelves is censorship and a book ban.

Now What?

The American Civil Liberties Union has filed an open records request with Elkhorn Area School District, as well as several others in the state of Wisconsin.

Parents in the community have been rallying to get the word out about the challenge, as well as to raise awareness about how such removals harm students far more than any book that may be sitting on a library shelf. They created a website called ItIsABookBan.com to encourage people to show up to the school board meeting this past Monday, December 11.

The next meeting for the Elkhorn Area School District will be Monday, January 8 at 6:30 pm in the Board Room of the Administration Building, 20650 Glenn Street.

Zooming out, Wisconsin’s GOP is proposing a censorship bill that stands in contrast to one proposed by state democrats. The GOP bill would require parental notification of books being borrowed by students and one that would get rid of protections for those who “distribute obscene materials.”