Editor’s Note: Opinions expressed by Elissa Malespina and Martha Hickson, who both spoke to NJ Advance Media for this article, are their own. They were not speaking on behalf of their respective school districts or as educators.
There is a movement across New Jersey to ban books from school libraries.
New Jersey School Librarians Association legislative consultant Mary Moyer Stubbs told NJ Advance Media that the association has seen an increase in book challenges, as well as self-censorship, in the Garden State these days. last years.
Stubbs said books about LGBTQ+ people and material thought to be related to critical race theory or the Black Lives Matter movement were primarily targeted.
Former association president Beth Thomas said the organization is aware of four school districts that have faced these challenges over the past two years. However, Thomas said, the exact number of disputes is unknown because some school districts do not have policies in place to handle complaints about the books and therefore do not report disputes to the association.
“Additionally, some school districts lack a certified school library media specialist who would ensure compliance with appropriate board policy and procedures,” Thomas said. “School districts are required to adhere to New Jersey’s unique quality accountability continuum, but many are not compliant.”
A poll released Thursday showed how divided Americans are over teaching children in K-12 schools about racism and sexuality. The findings come at a time when school curricula are facing challenges in school districts across the country and many states are introducing laws meant to limit the teaching of racism and sexuality in classrooms.
“Everything that’s happening these days kind of runs counter to the longer history of school boards as relatively unimportant government institutions, and in many cases, they’re nonpartisan offices.” , said Adam Zelizer, a professor at the Harris School at the University of Chicago. school board legislation, told The Associated Press.
In 2020, a total of 273 books nationwide were targeted by censorship attempts, with 38% of book censorship attempts taking place in schools and 15% in school libraries, according to the Office for Intellectual Freedom. of the American Library Association.
Here are examples of attempted book bans that have taken place in New Jersey:
- In the Lower Township, efforts were made to have the book “Black and White” by Paul Volponi removed from the Charles Sandman Consolidated School. Those who spoke out against the book argued that the book’s use of explicit language and racial slurs were inappropriate for students.
- In Wayne Township, people demanded that the council ban seven books written on topics related to gender identity. One of the books being “Gender Queer: A Memoir” by Maia Kobabe, which faces nationwide challenges.
- At Westfield, parents sought to ban author Toni Morrison’s ‘The Bluest Eye’ from its Grade 11 American Studies curriculum, citing the award-winning book was inappropriate because of its depictions of rape and incest.
- On January 27, the North Hunterdon-Voorhees Regional School District School Board passed a resolution to keep five LGBTQ+-themed books on its library shelves, after community members tried to have the books banned. on the grounds that they contained inappropriate subject matter. for students.
Grassroots efforts to ban the books
New Jersey School Librarians Association Vice President Beth Raff said the association is aware of organized efforts to remove the material from school library shelves.
Once school administrators and the board were given a challenge, association president-elect Ewa Dziedzic-Elliot they said, “…subjected to their fear of being challenged and practicing self-censorship, they avoid purchasing equipment to avoid the challenge.” Therefore, official statistics may seem insignificant, but the problem is real and exists in our communities.
These challenges also come from those who don’t live in the neighborhood seeking to have books dealing with sexuality, gender identity and race banned.
“We are working to provide information so that schools can update policy (and) procedure manuals to ensure that any challenge must come from a student or staff member in the building,” said said Stubbs. “There have been members outside of the community who have made statements but have not necessarily taken appropriate steps to challenge the material.”
Challenges get personal
North Hunterdon Voorhees Regional High School librarian Martha Hickson said she was personally targeted when an organized group attempted to have books banned from the shelves of the district library.
It started with defamatory comments about him at a school board meeting in September 2021, and escalated into hateful emails sent to his work account. She was shunned by some colleagues, Hickson said, although she received support from the New Jersey Education Association.
Hickson said she began to experience stress-related issues including insomnia, weight loss and anxiety, eventually taking extended sick leave, under doctor’s orders. The experience led her to be extremely careful when selecting books for the library.
“Kids today have access, via the device in their pocket, to the whole world, for better and for worse,” Hickson said. “They deserve to have their real lives and real experiences depicted in the books they read. They deserve to have those books written in the vernacular that they speak and whether they like it or not.
“I see our library as kind of a lifeline in that regard, and that’s why it worries me when I have doubts about, you know, just seeing that there’s sexual content (in a book… (I) feel armed shy.”
New standards in place
Over the past year, the South Orange-Maplewood School Board has passed resolutions updating policies on how books are selected and how the public can challenge books that appear on library shelves. . These policies had not been updated for years.
Board member Elissa Malespina, who is also a teacher librarian at Verona High School, suggested the board make these policy changes after seeing book challenges occur at other New York schools. Jersey.
“You’re starting to see a lot more of this push towards banning materials,” Malespina said. “So school districts need to take the initiative to make sure their policies and procedures are in place so that if a challenge arises, here’s what happens.”
Malespina said last year that the board had rewritten its documentary resources policy, which had not been updated since 2011.
“It’s a policy that tells you what you as a school district want from the books, materials, and textbooks that you have in your schools, and what you think as a school district that those books and materials should look like,” Malespina said.
Malespina said the board wanted to make sure the district has various materials related to culture, ethnicity and gender, and updated its policy after consulting with other New Jersey school librarians.
“All of these things we added to the policy because we wanted to make sure the community understood that we were going to bring various materials into our community,” she said. “So we made it very diverse by sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, ethnic cultural groups, and we put the wording in there to make it a lot easier.”
In March, Malespina said, the council also passed a resolution updating a policy that addresses public complaints and grievances. This policy had not been updated since 2001. The new policy states that only a student or parent/guardian of a student in the district may issue a challenge.
“We don’t want a random community member who doesn’t have a child in school,” Malespina said. “Yes, technically they are taxpayers…but we can write our policies however we want. … We want a stakeholder.
The policy was written based on conversations Malespina had with Hickson, as well as after reviewing policies from other districts.
The revised policy, Malespina said, also outlines how a person challenging a book must prove that it violates New Jersey state education standards.
State education standards require all school districts to have a curriculum that addresses diversity, inclusion, and the history of people with disabilities as well as LGBTQ+ people.
“New Jersey has some of the best diversity laws in the country,” Malespina said. “But because people don’t realize it, we’ve made it clear in our policies that you have to show (to the board) how this material doesn’t meet state educational standards, before you even consider hear a dispute.”
Books and documents facing a challenge will also not be deleted while a review is in progress. This was done, Malespina said, to prevent administrators from simply removing a book in an attempt to stop the controversy.
Malespina said she hopes the district’s new policies will help guide other districts that may face similar challenges in the future.
“It makes it easier for other school districts to say to themselves, ‘OK, another school district has this, so I can do this,'” she said. “So my hope is to use my platform as a librarian to promote this (policy), help other librarians and help the public become aware of the steps they need to take to prevent problems from arising. produce.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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Vashti Harris can be contacted at [email protected].